Dee Gordon has the Dodgers talking
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At first glance, you think he might be the teenage son of one of the coaches. He is young, but not nearly as young as he looks. He is thin, even thinner than most middle-aged sportswriters wish they could be.
Soon enough, though, you figure out who he is. He is the one they're all talking about.
Dee Gordon, all 150 pounds of him, is the top prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system, their shortstop of the future and one of the fastest runners in baseball. Club officials have raved about him from the moment the Dodgers drafted him in the fourth round in 2008, when he went by the name Devaris Strange-Gordon. Although his moment still hasn't come, he is in major league spring training for the first time, a decision that was an investment in his blindingly bright future.
"I wanted to expose him to the big league staff on a daily basis and expose him to a major league clubhouse," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said.
It figures to be a short stay. Gordon isn't a candidate for the Opening Day roster -- not this year, anyway -- and those players tend to be among the first ones cut as the regular season draws nearer and the major league players need more at-bats. In the meantime, new manager Don Mattingly and a largely new coaching staff will get a good look at the player who, for all practical purposes, has been anointed the Dodgers' shortstop of the future.
"We don't use terms like 'heir apparent' around here," said DeJon Watson, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for player development. "This kid is going to have to earn it just like everybody else has to earn it. And when he does reach the major leagues, there will still be some evolving he will need to do as a player.
"He is not a finished product. He still has plenty of work to do."
The son of Tom Gordon, a major league reliever for 21 seasons whose name actually appears in the title of a Stephen King novel, Gordon is another of those second-generation guys who aren't really awed by the atmosphere of a big league clubhouse. But he still recognizes his opportunity this spring, and he is determined to make the best impression he can for as long as he is allowed to.
Still, his reputation as the organization's top prospect clearly preceded him into the clubhouse, and that affords him certain privileges that a lesser-known rookie might not get.
"It has been great the way everybody has taken me in," Gordon said. "Everybody has really tried to help me out and make me feel comfortable, so it has been fun."
Gordon has shown flashes of why he is so highly regarded. He easily made good on his first stolen-base attempt on Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds, finishing it off with a flashy, head-first slide. And through Sunday, he was a respectable 2-for-9 at the plate in the Cactus League.
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He also has provided the occasional reminder that he is still very young and very inexperienced; he didn't play baseball until his senior year in high school. During a game he wasn't even playing in, he made an honest but confused effort to get out of the way of third baseman Aaron Miles, who was chasing a foul pop near the dugout. Gordon left the dugout and went onto the field, resulting in a collision with Miles and a dropped ball. Gordon made a throwing error on a fairly routine grounder in another game that resulted in an unearned run in a 2-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians.
That last one was a perfect example of something club officials say is a regular issue with Gordon: He needs to rein himself in at times and get his body under control. On that play, routine as it was, Gordon ranged several feet to his left to snare the ball, then tried to plant and throw in a single motion, resulting in a bounced throw past first base.
"He still has a long way to go as a player," Colletti said. "There are a lot of edges we need to smooth off. One of those is consistency, which will come with experience. A lot of it is understanding the speed of the game and the speed of the runner."
It isn't that Gordon hasn't already made major strides -- he hit better than .300 in each of his first two seasons in the organization and stole 73 bases for low Class A Great Lakes in 2009, even though he was caught stealing 25 times. But Gordon made the jump to Double-A Chattanooga last spring. Many baseball insiders insist the gap between high Class A and Double-A is the toughest for a young player to bridge, and Gordon skipped high Class A altogether because Watson wanted to challenge him. The result was that, for the first time, Gordon looked human.
His batting average fell to .277, and he lost 30 points off his on-base percentage. And while his stolen-base success rate was virtually unchanged -- 74.5 at Great Lakes in 2009 and 72.6 at Chattanooga in 2010 -- the fact his steals (73 to 53) and steal attempts (98 to 73) were way down suggested he was a little less sure of himself on the bases.
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"At that level, the catchers are better and the pitchers are better," said Rodney McCray, the Dodgers' minor league base-running coordinator. "In A-ball, you tell guys to just run, just to let them get familiar with stealing bases and build their confidence. By the time you get to Double-A, you have to start learning how to read pitchers and pick up keys from pitchers, and you have to be conscious of game situations."
Gordon now admits that Double-A was a bit too much for him when he first got there. But the fact he remained there all season and finished strong was a testament to his ability to adapt and adjust, something that isn't always there in a 22-year-old.
"It was pretty difficult, especially coming from low-A," Gordon said. "I struggled, but I learned a lot. I had some good stretches, but it was always just in spurts. I never really felt like I got as hot as I could. There were a lot of things I felt could have been better, but I learned from it, and I'll go into this year with that experience behind me."
After finishing strong, Gordon went to the Puerto Rican Winter League and played 33 games for Gigantes de Carolina, where he faced the occasional big league pitcher. Overall, he hit an eye-popping .361 with a .396 on-base percentage, scored 26 runs and struck out just once every 9.6 at-bats. Shortly after that, he was at Camelback Ranch, one of several players who arrived well before the start of spring training.
Perhaps the primary focus of Gordon's game now is his defense, which isn't as raw as it used to be. He has worked with Matt Martin, the Dodgers' minor league infield coordinator, and longtime major league infielder Jody Reed, who manages the Dodgers' Arizona Rookie League team. Gordon committed 37 errors at Chattanooga last year, a high number even for a shortstop. Still, Watson insists it didn't look as bad to the naked eye as it looked on the stat sheet.
"To me, a number of those errors were on balls he got to that most people wouldn't get to," Watson said.
Watson is keeping his immediate plans for Gordon close to the vest. Given that Gordon had a decent but not great season at Double-A, Watson has to decide whether to send him back to Chattanooga to start the season or immediately promote him to Triple-A Albuquerque. A lot of different factors, including the psyche of the player, have to be weighed in making that choice.
But what fans seem more interested in is where Gordon will be in 2012. With a full season in Double-A behind him, it is reasonable to think he could begin next year in the majors. But that also could depend on what happens with current shortstop Rafael Furcal, whose $12 million club option for next year will automatically vest if he reaches 600 plate appearances in 2011.
Furcal is the Dodgers' leadoff hitter, meaning if he stays healthy, he'll get 600 plate appearances. All of which raises the question of what happens if Gordon is ready to succeed Furcal before Furcal is ready to be succeeded.
Gordon has never been anything other than a shortstop. He says he would be willing to try second base if club officials asked him to -- "That's a great shortstop over there," he said recently, pointing across the clubhouse at Furcal's locker -- but Watson and Colletti say they have no intention of ever doing so.
For now, no one in the organization wants to address the matter of whether Gordon and Furcal are on a collision course. But consider this: Early in his career, while with the Atlanta Braves, Furcal played 36 games at second. While all but five of those games came during his rookie season of 2000, Furcal has played the position more recently in the Dominican Winter League.
One scenario for 2012, then, might be that Furcal moves across the bag to make room for Gordon. That would mean Juan Uribe, who is signed through 2013, would have to move to third base, where he has considerable experience. Current third baseman Casey Blake isn't signed beyond this season and will be 38 by next fall, so he almost certainly is entering his final season with the Dodgers.
All those pieces would seem to fall neatly into place, but they won't if Gordon doesn't continue to improve in 2011, wherever he ends up spending it. Even if he doesn't improve, it won't be for a lack of effort or commitment. By all accounts, Gordon has his head on straight. He knows he is a hyped prospect. But for now, he isn't really buying into it.
"I try to stay unaware of it, but you have family and friends who read things, and they let you know," he said. "I'm just trying to keep my head down and play as hard as I can. I still feel like my whole game needs improving. I just have to keep going, because I still have a lot of work to do."Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.