White Sox shouldn't let Konerko go
Paul Konerko is coming off a much better season than Derek Jeter. Since 2001, Konerko has won the same number of world championships as Jeter. At the moment, Konerko is the most popular player, on either side of town, in the nation's third-largest market.
So, where is the outrage among fans and media members that Paulie remains unsigned?
It must be a New York/Everybody Else thing. Unlike the Yankees and Jeter, the Chicago White Sox have business and baseball reasons to reward Konerko with a nice new deal.
Jeter's 2010 production rivaled that of Alex Gonzalez and Marco Scutaro. Not so with Konerko. Few major leaguers — at first base or anywhere else — hit like Konerko this year: .312, 39 home runs, 111 RBI.
Konerko is also nearly two years younger than Jeter. But three weeks into free agency, Konerko doesn't have a contract. And when contacted before Thanksgiving, this is all White Sox general manager Kenny Williams would say about it:
“I'm on record with how much I respect and value Paul Konerko on and off the field. Beyond that, I don't have much else to say, because I keep things pretty quiet when it comes to our dealings.”
Those dealings included an unsuccessful attempt to sign free agent Victor Martinez. The division rival Detroit Tigers hired him instead. We'll never know for sure, but it's possible that signing Martinez would have left the White Sox without the money to retain Konerko.
If so, then failing to get Martinez was a serendipitous stroke of luck for the Pale Hose. Konerko's value to the lineup and clubhouse is immeasurable. Veteran reliever J.J. Putz called him “one of the best, professional and talented teammates I have been around.”
I don't know if White Sox officials are taking him for granted. But if they are — even a little — they are committing an egregious error.
“He's a legitimate threat to hit a homer every at-bat,” stated C.J. Wilson, the analytical Texas Rangers left-hander. “Losing his bat could mean a lower run total for the team, and that would really lessen their chances to take down Minnesota.
“The alternative is that they try and sign someone to replace him, but, as we've found out, the known quantity is generally more consistent and predictable than the unknown ‘newly signed’ guy.”
Take a look at the team's starting lineup, without Konerko and fellow free agent A.J. Pierzynski: Mark Teahen, Dayan Viciedo and Brent Morel at the infield corners; unproven Tyler Flowers behind the plate; inconsistent Gordon Beckham at second base; enigmatic Carlos Quentin in right field; and an ad hoc committee at designated hitter.
Clearly, the White Sox must sign someone. Probably a couple of someones. Why not start with Konerko, a loyal White Sox employee since 1999?
Sure, Konerko is an aging player. He was an old soul in his 20s, and he turns 35 in March. His 2008 season was pockmarked by diminished numbers and injuries to his right knee and left oblique. He is close enough to his baseball dotage that a multi-year contract is inherently risky.
But Konerko's track record says he hits. During his recently expired five-year, $60 million contract, he averaged better than 30 home runs and 90 RBI per season. He had a better OPS than Jeter over that span, although first basemen are supposed to outperform shortstops.
The smart money still says Konerko will return to the South Side. He has a strong relationship with chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Williams, whose rift with manager Ozzie Guillen is well publicized, knows how valuable Konerko's equanimity has been in the oft-chaotic clubhouse.
In addition to Konerko's off-the-field attributes, I don't know where the White Sox can find a better first baseman in the current marketplace.
Adam Dunn has been mentioned as a possibility. The White Sox lineup would indeed look a lot scarier with his left-handed bat. Dunn would hit 45 home runs — maybe more — at U.S. Cellular Field.
If Reinsdorf wants Konerko and Dunn — as an alternating first base/designated hitter combination — then more power to him. But the White Sox can't sign Dunn if it means losing Konerko. That would be too risky, for a number of reasons:
• Konerko is a better defender.
• Dunn has never played for an American League team.
• Dunn has appeared in the same number of postseason games as you and I.
• Konerko is wise enough to realize that DH appearances — he made 23 this year — are good for his body. Dunn, meanwhile, has made it clear he doesn't want to be a DH. “I think everyone pretty much knows that's something I don't want to do at this point in time of my career,” Dunn told the Washington Post in July. “In four, five years down the road, maybe. As of right now, no.”
Konerko, meanwhile, hasn't ruled out an increase in the number of his DH days.
So, what if Dunn replaces Konerko at first base … but then Ozzie decides after a couple of months that his team is best off with Dunn at DH? Wouldn't you love to be in the manager's office for that meeting?
Dunn might be younger than Konerko, but it's hard to describe him as more athletic. In fact, they are comparable base-cloggers. Take away his home runs and Konerko scored 50 runs this year. By the same calculus, Dunn had 49.
But when it comes to Konerko, here's the most impressive statistic of all: Among players who spent the past 10 seasons with the same team, Konerko ranks second with 313 home runs, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Albert Pujols is the only hitter ahead of him.
The White Sox offered Konerko salary arbitration earlier this week. If he accepts, he will receive a one-year contract and raise on the $12 million he earned this year. But he deserves more than that. If Dunn is going to get four years, then Konerko should get at least three.
And if he doesn't?
“I'd certainly love to have him in our lineup,” Wilson said.
He is not alone. For the White Sox's sake, I hope they realize that.