Alex Gordon’s story is familiar to most baseball fans. The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2005 was soon ranked the game’s No. 2 overall prospect by Baseball America. With a lefty-swinging third baseman being touted as the next face of the franchise, George Brett parallels were (unfairly) drawn. The hype was substantial, and when Gordon arrived on the scene, he struggled to live up to those lofty expectations.
Gordon was worth 4.8 WAR through his first two big league seasons, per both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. His next two seasons were miserable — shortened by torn cartilage in his hip (2009) and a fractured thumb (2010). By the time he’d made it through four MLB campaigns, Gordon owned a career .244/.328/.405 (93 wRC+). Defensively, his work at third base wasn’t well regarded (-9 Defensive Runs Saved, -4.0 Ultimate Zone Rating). He began ceding playing time to Alberto Callaspo at third base and was moved to left field during the 2010 season.
The Royals remained patient, however, and Gordon rewarded that faith was a massive breakout in 2011. Suddenly Gordon looked like the franchise cornerstone everyone had hoped. He hit .303/.376/.502 (140 wRC+) and, perhaps even more surprisingly, graded out as one of the best defensive left fielders in recent history (+20 DRS, +12.2 UZR). Almost overnight, Gordon was a six-WAR player. He settled in as an OBP machine with elite defense, solid baserunning and some pop in his bat, and Gordon’s production was a significant factor in Kansas City’s consecutive World Series appearances in 2014-15.
We’re coming up on a decade of Gordon in left field. He’s seen Jarrod Dyson, Alex Rios, Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki and numerous others cycle through the other outfield slots, but Gordon has remained the constant. And now, as the organization works to emerge from its rebuild in the next couple of seasons, the third-baseman-turned-star-left-fielder is joined in the outfield by … another pair of infielders.
Hunter Dozier never carried the same hype as Gordon, although his No. 8 overall selection in 2013 was only six spots behind Gordon’s draft slot. Dozier was a surprise pick there — ultimately a cost-saving selection designed to offer a larger bonus to Sean Manaea a ways later. That’s not to say Dozier wasn’t a well-regarded draft prospect — he was widely expected to be a day one pick — but top 10 overall was still a surprise.
Dozier struggled through much of his time in the low minors before surprising with a huge .296/.366/.533 showing between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016. He parlayed that into his first promotion to the big leagues but appeared in only eight games. An oblique tear and wrist surgery wiped out most of his 2017 season, and when Dozier finally got a big league look in 2018, he hit .229/.278/.395 in 388 plate appearances. His 28.1 percent strikeout rate was among the highest in the league, his 6.2 percent walk rate was low, and his glovework was poorly rated. FanGraphs pegged him at -0.8 WAR; Baseball Reference placed a ghastly -1.7 on his overall efforts.
Still, Dozier felt that he finished out the ’18 season well after missing ’17, telling Lynn Worthy of the K.C. Star in the offseason that he “found” himself again late in the year. That comment might’ve been met with eye-rolls from some fans at the time, but no one’s questioning him now.
In 2019, Dozier cut his strikeout rate by three percentage points, upped his walk rate by the same number and saw upticks in hard-hit rate, exit velocity and launch angle. He swung less often, chased pitches out of the zone at a 30.1 percent clip (compared to 2018’s 35.5 percent) and improved his contact rate. In essence, Dozier stopped chasing so many bad pitches and saw his contact quality improve along with his walk rate. That’s a good recipe for any hitter.
The results speak for themselves. In 586 plate appearances, Dozier broke out with a .279/.348/.522 slash. His 26 home runs topped any of his minor league season totals, and Dozier kicked in another 29 doubles and a whopping 10 triples. That last number is surprising, especially for a player who only swiped two bases, but Dozier actually ranks in the 80th percentile among MLB hitters in terms of average sprint speed.
Defense still seemed to be problematic, though. Despite making strides, his work at third was rated below average, and the Royals eventually began giving Dozier some looks in right field. That sprint speed would certainly play well in the outfield, and scouting reports have long since touted his arm strength. MLB.com regularly put a 55 on his arm, while FanGraphs had a 60 on his arm in his final season of prospect eligibility. If Dozier can get comfortable with his outfield reads and keep hitting, there’s little reason to think he can’t be a solid Major League right fielder. And with Maikel Franco signed over the winter to step in at third base, it seems that right field is indeed Dozier’s most obvious path to at-bats.
Manning center field between Gordon and Dozier will be now-former second baseman Whit Merrifield. The two-time stolen base champ and the hits leader in the American League in both 2018 and 2019, Merrifield broke into the big leagues as a 27-year-old second baseman who was never considered a high-end prospect. The former ninth-round pick was considered more of a potential utility option, but he showed his aptitude for hitting almost immediately.
Merrifield’s speed and bat-to-ball skills were on display almost immediately in the Majors, and by the midway point of the 2017 season it was clear that he was far more than a utility option — lack of fanfare surrounding his arrival in the Majors or not. In his three full MLB seasons, Merrifield has hit .298/.348/.454 with 47 home runs, 116 doubles, 19 triples and 99 stolen bases. And despite having more than 3000 innings of quality glovework at second base under his belt, Merrifield appears to be the Royals’ first answer for the their current center field void.
That’s more a testament to Merrifield’s versatility than anything else. His ability to slide into center field will allow the club a longer look at Nicky Lopez at second base, although Merrifield will surely still see some reps at second base at various points whenever play resumes.
If that experiment doesn’t work, though, it seems likelier that it’ll be due to struggles of Lopez at second base than because of Merrifield’s work in center. Merrifield has already given the Royals more than 1100 innings of roughly average defense across all three outfield spots. Similarly, if Franco proves unable to tap into the potential he once showed, Dozier could either move back to the hot corner or the organization could take a look at Kelvin Gutierrez in a full-time role at third base.
That Dozier and Merrifield could line up in the outfield on a fairly regular basis certainly doesn’t bode well for out-of-options outfielders Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling. Both may have been in line to make the MLB roster out of camp because of that lack of options, but neither has produced in the Majors. Most are aware of Phillips’ highlight-reel arm and penchant for eye-popping assists, but his strikeout levels have been alarming. Starling, a former top 10 pick himself, has yet to deliver on the raw ability that led to that draft status. Both will get some looks in the outfield, and on those days, Dozier and Merrifield can slot back into the infield as needed.
At various points in recent years, the Royals likely envisioned both Dozier and Merrifield holding down key spots in the lineup, but slotting in alongside Gordon in the outfield probably wasn’t the way they had things scripted. The team’s willingness to move players around has panned out in the past, though, and their ability to do so with Merrifield and Dozier could allow them to get a look at several young options around the field.