Can Gordo's return help the Royals win more than 65 games in 2020?

Though the Kansas City Metro is firmly focusing (and rightfully so) on the Chiefs’ first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years, the Royals have been making some noise with seam heads such as myself. First, the Vegas over/under win totals for Major League baseball teams was released early this week and the Royals opened with 65 wins, which would be fourth lowest of Major League teams, and third lowest of American League teams (Vegas predicted the Royals to finish the year with more wins than the Orioles and the Tigers). Considering the Royals are coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, and their biggest new acquisition this off-season was third-baseman Maikel Franco, it is not surprising that Vegas is predicting a 97-loss campaign in year one of the new ownership group led by John Sherman.

However, with Fan Fest approaching this weekend, as promised by Royals MLB.com beat writer Jeff Flanagan, Dayton Moore re-signed outfielder Alex Gordon to a one-year, $4 million deal to return to Kansas City. This signing pretty much guarantees that Gordo will be the starting left fielder on Opening Day for the Royals for at least one more season.

The deal has generated a lot of mixed feelings with Royals fans this off-season. Obviously, considering his history, Gordo is a beloved figure in Kansas City. That being said, outfielders Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling are young outfielders waiting in the wings who have flashed potential in the past couple of seasons (both in Omaha and Kansas City). However, with no Minor League options left going into 2020, so it’s likely that one of them will be the odd-man out and designated for assignment post-Spring Training now that Gordo most likely will be the starting left fielder on Opening Day.

Does Gordo coming back for one more year help or actually hinder the Royals not just in 2020, but down the road during this rebuild as well? Did Moore and the Royals opt for the “fan favorite” route to bring butts to Kauffman in 2020? Or will Gordo actually be a difference maker for this club and help them surpass those meager win expectations next season?

I actually believe bringing back Gordo was a solid decision by the Royals brass. Furthermore, I will bring up three key points to support that Gordo’s return is not only good for the Royals in terms of keeping fans engaged, but will actually have a big impact on wins for 2020.


Gordo solidifies the outfield defensively…which is needed considering the changes

The Royals outfield will look vastly different in 2020 compared to 2019. Last year, the Royals trotted out Gordo in left, Billy Hamilton in center, and Whit in right field on Opening Day. In the beginning, they mixed it up with Jorge Soler in right field when they wanted Whit to play second. While Hamilton and Gordo held down their positions in the outfield well, Soler eventually played his way out defensively in right (which was the right decision in order to preserve his health and bat), and though Whit seemed to cover space well in right field, there were a lot of questions about his arm strength and whether his arm merited him being the full-time right fielder in 2020.

In 2020, with the arrival of Franco, the Royals are moving former third-baseman Hunter Dozier to right field and thus shifting Whit to center. While Doz didn’t do great before in right (he was two outs below average in right field in 2019, according to Baseball Savant), he is a decent athlete for his size, and it is likely that he will improve defensively in the outfield considering he will be playing the position full-time in Spring Training, which will give him an adequate number of reps. Doz has the arm strength to play the position. He just needs to be able to get better reads on balls and take better angles, which will develop with a full Spring Training at the position.

With Doz’s position change and Gordo’s return to left, Whit will shift to center, which may be a better fit with his arm strength. In terms of gaining ground on fly balls, Whit actually profiled better in right in 2019, as he rated two outs above average in right in comparison to one out above average in center field, according to Baseball Savant. However, he did have twice as many chances in right field as he did in center field in 2019, so it is possible that Whit may actually be a comparable center fielder defensively if the chances were even. Thus, it is possible that Whit not only will hold down the center field position in 2020, but he could actually excel defensively at the spot, which wasn’t necessarily the case for him at second base in 2018 and 2019, according to the metrics.

Which leads back to Gordo, who profiled a little sub-par defensively metrically, though he did earn another Gold Glove in 2019. Last year, according to Baseball Savant, he rated five outs below average in left field, the worst mark of his career. However, if you look at his profile as a whole, he was rated three outs, two outs, and three outs above average from 2016-2018. So what was the difference last year? While age and regression probably made a difference, the carousel of different centerfielders most likely had an effect. In 2016 and 2017, the Royals had Lorenzo Cain patrolling center field, and the two, predictably thrived. In 2018, it was a little less stable, but they did have better defensive outfielders out there (such as John Jay, Abraham Almonte, and Brian Goodwin), even if they did not follow through with the bat. With Whit there full time, it is likely Gordo and Whit will develop better chemistry between center and left, and with that being the case, not only will Gordo improve metrics-wise, but the Royals will save more runs defensively as an outfield in general, which could correlate to more wins in 2020.


Gordo strengthens this Royals lineup

The Royals will be better defensively in 2020, which should add a few more wins to their 59-total from a year ago. However, good defense can only go so far: you need to score runs to win games as well.

Gordo helps this lineup in a big way, and he won’t have too much pressure on him, since this Royals lineup will be even more dangerous from a year ago with the return of Salavador Perez behind the plate.

Let’s take a look at the projected regular lineup for 2020, according to Fangraphs:

  1. Whit (CF)
  2. Mondi (SS)
  3. Soler (DH)
  4. Doz (RF)
  5. Gordo (LF)
  6. Salvy (C)
  7. O’Hearn (1B)
  8. Franco (3B)
  9. Lopez (2B)

If you buy that Lopez and O’Hearn are due for breakout in 2020 (which I do…more on that in another future post) and that Franco can bounce back after a sub-par season in Philly (many fans are believing BABIP will be kinder to him in spacious Kauffman in comparison to the bandbox that is Citizen Bank Ballpark), then Gordo’s return makes this lineup underrated and possibly dangerous in the AL Central. While Phillips and Starling garnered high marks defensively in 2019, their hitting has been questionable at the Major League level, and it’s unlikely that they would have drastically improved in 2020.

Furthermore, Gordo has made gains as a hitter over the past year. After sucking during the first couple years of his extension, the Royals vet stabilized his strikeout rate and maintained his walk rate in 2019, making him a tough out for opposing pitchers. While Gordo did hit more ground balls in 2019 and saw his hard-hit percentages decline, he still proved to be a dependable bat who could hit 12-17 home runs and post a .260 or above batting average, which would boost this Royals lineup tremendously in 2020. While the Royals would not get the .300 hitter or 20-plus home run Gordo of years past, a Gordo who could post a .750ish OPS (he posted a .741 OPS in 2019) would go a long way in terms of helping this club offensively. Add Gordo’s numbers with a healthy Salvy, and it is not far-fetched to think that Royals could win between 70-75 games, a promising sign of improvement in addition to a much better mark than their projected win total of 65.


Gordo’s contact gives the Royals flexibility during the year

At one-year and $4 million, the deal keeps the Royals under the $80 million mark as of now. While it may be deflating for Royals fans who want to see the club turn it around immediately and spend cash in a Yankees or Dodgers-esque fashion, the financial prudence demonstrated by Moore and the organization may bear fruit during the course of the season and even beyond 2020.

First, the deal could lead to possible extensions throughout the season, which could be possible if certain prospects break out in 2020. It is expected that Brady Singer will break the rotation at some point in 2020. If he comes up and is gangbusters? Well…it may be wise for the Royals to invest in the former first-round pick sooner rather than later. Gordon’s modest deal allows them to do so with players like Singer, Adalberto Mondesi (who’s heading into arbitration), Jorge Soler, or other players who may exceed expectations whom the Royals may find beneficial to lock down early for the future.

Second, Gordo not only waived his “no-trade” clause (he had one in his previous contract), which gives the Royals the possibility of getting a prospect return should Gordo break out and generate some demand on the market. While the Royals would like to get some return from guys like Ian Kennedy or even Danny Duffy, their high contracts make it difficult to hook any prospective suitors. However, at $4 million, Gordo doesn’t hurt other teams financially, and he is also rewarded, as he get a $500,000 boost if traded. Thus, if the Royals can get a prospect or two in a trade, then it is a win-win for everyone involved in a myriad of ways.

Lastly, let’s say Gordo doesn’t progress like he has been the past couple of seasons. While I picture Gordo building on his improvement from the past two years, it is possible that age and perhaps injury could bring Gordo back to those 2016 and 2017 levels. If that is the case, it is not costly to keep Gordo on the bench, or worst case scenario, release him. Of course, I think the latter is unlikely, as this is most likely Gordo’s last year, and the Royals will milk the farewell tour to the max, meaning that Gordo will make it through the entire year on the roster, barring something catastrophic.


Does it benefit the Royals to win more than 65 games?

Offensively, the Royals have the blueprint to win 68-72 games this year. While a 9-to-13-win improvement seems rash and wishful, the Royals had a Pythagorean of 64-78, which belies that the club was pretty unlucky in 2019. Furthermore, though Mike Matheny’s hire may have generated some controversy, there will be a boost under a new manager, and so far, the early reports suggest that the players have embraced new management, which usually correlates to surprise success (also, the Royals retained a lot of coaches from Ned Yost’s staff, so that will also help as well). Add that with the return of Gordon, and it’s easy to see the Royals surprise, even if that surprise doesn’t result in any kind of postseason contention.

However, does it benefit the Royals to re-sign Gordo just to win 10-15 more games? Shouldn’t the Royals lose and continue to stack prospects through the draft?

At the end of the day, it is more beneficial to the Royals to be slightly more competitive in 2020, even if it means a lower draft position. First off, the past two seasons have been rough on the club, as well as the fans and their psyche. To lose 100 or more games for a third straight season would be debilitating, especially for a club that is playing in the shadow of Chiefs and Mahomes Mania. The Royals have always struggled to share the spotlight with the Chiefs, especially in August and September when football season is starting. If the Royals are tanking again, it would be depressing, not just from a fan’s end, but financially and in the media as well. Attendance would be abysmal, and the Royals would be guaranteed only snippets in the local KC media with Chiefs season in bloom. The Royals need to show progress to stay relevant, and I think that is a big reason why Gordo is back: to make sure this team improves.

As stated before, my best guess for this club would be 72 wins: an eight-win improvement from their Pythagorean win total a year ago. While that does not seem too dramatic, 72 wins would help keep Royals fans’ interest in 2020. Yes, it would be far from playoff contention, but it would show that the club has the potential to make a true breakout in the coming years. After all, when the Royals broke out and won 86 games in 2013, they won 72 in 2012.

Maybe Gordo can help the Royals achieve a similar campaign to 2012…and help replicate another 2013-2016 run in 2021 and beyond.

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