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Will Kansas City Royals third baseman Alex Gordon become a star? This is, to me, one of the defining questions for the near to medium future of the American League Central. While the Kansas City Royals are not ready to contend with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians for Central supremacy in 2008, they have a chance to emerge from the Central cellar for the first time since 2003.

They’ve parlayed their first-round picks in recent drafts into some very talented young players (Gordon, Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas, etc.). Unfortunately, they’ve had high first-round draft picks in pretty much every draft since the 1994 strike, and for a variety of reasons (incompetent management, meddling ownership, prospect injuries) those high picks haven’t yielded talent that has produced a winning baseball team. In order for the Royals to turn the corner, they need to turn potential into production. Gordon has as much potential as any position player to arrive in Kansas City since Bo Jackson. Will he turn into the franchise cornerstone that they need?

After a 2005 season where he swept every major individual college baseball award as a member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Gordon was selected by the Royals with the #2 overall pick (after Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton) in the June draft. He held out for most of the summer, and by the time he signed it was too late to begin his professional career in 2005. He played all of the 2006 season in Wichita, the Royals’ AA affiliate, and tore up the Texas League to the tune of a .325 batting average with 29 homers and 101 runs batted in. He was named Baseball America’s 2006 Minor League Player of the Year, and went into his rookie season last year with sky-high expectations on his shoulders.

Spring training 2007 was filled with stories of how good Gordon looked at the plate and in the field at camp. Comparisons to Royals legend George Brett abounded, and they were amplified by Brett’s statement last February that, “When I watch [Gordon] play, he makes the game look pretty easy. When I played the game, I knew how hard it was. He’s better than I was at (23). Much better.” Combine this with the fact that Gordon grew up a Royals fan and even has a younger brother, Brett, named after the slugger, and there was almost a perfect storm of hype as the ’07 season began.

But the storied rookie season was not to be. Gordon had a terrible first two months of the season, beginning the year 1 for his first 22, and it was mid-June before he raised his batting average above .200. Worse yet, none of the power that he had shown in college and the minor leagues was translating to the majors. There was a lot of debate about whether he should have been sent back to the minors at some point in that stretch, but the Royals stuck to their guns and kept putting his name in the lineup.

Gordon rewarded their patience by rebounding. From June 4 through the end of the season, he hit .284 with a .328 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage, which were, according to Baseball Prospectus, “numbers similar to a pair of 23-year-old rookie third basemen, Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones.” Also, regardless of how he was doing at the plate, Gordon played solid defense at third base. He finished the season with a .247 batting average and 55 extra-base hits.

So where will he go from here? It’s hard to say, but he’s already behind the career track of the player that the Royals hope he can emulate. Despite Brett’s comparison of Gordon and himself at the same age, this is how the numbers stack up:

Player Age Year BA OBP SLG HR RBI

Brett 23 ‘76 .333 .377 .462 7 67
Gordon 23 ‘07 .247 .314 .411 15 60

Once Gordon got going, he showed superior power to Brett at the same age, but he fell short in every other area besides drawing walks. Here’s how Brett’s follow-up season, along with Teixeira and Jones’ sophomore campaigns, compare to Baseball Prospectus’ projection for Gordon in 2008:

Player Age Year BA OBP SLG HR RBI

Brett 24 ‘77 .312 .373 .532 22 88
Teixeira 24 ‘04 .281 .370 .560 38 112
Jones 24 ‘96 .309 .393 .530 30 110
Gordon 24 ‘08 .270 .350 .470 18 73

If Gordon comes anywhere close to the performance of any of those players this season, Royals fans will be thrilled. As you can see, though, his projected performance is a notch or two below that of the players he’s been compared to.

Gordon’s stellar college and minor league performances resulted in his being mentioned with some very select company. In order for him to live up to the resulting expectations, he needs to raise his game to the next level, and maybe one beyond that this season. The Royals and their fans have been dealing with lowered expectations for too long, and perhaps this is one case where a homegrown player can rise up to the hype surrounding him. This season will tell us a lot about what kind of player Alex Gordon can be.