For those hoping to avoid an awkward situation where the White Sox aren’t sure whether they want to retain the services of a 38 year-old first basemen and franchise legend who still wants to play, and doesn’t care if he has to leave his team of 15 years to do so, this season has been a bit of a perfect storm.
After lamenting the way he never felt right throughout 2012, Paul Konerko‘s performance has fallen off a cliff that we can actually see this time. Furthermore, he’s battled back injuries and has required countless injections just to get on the field and the team has given him no playoff race to sacrifice his body for. If they had, he’d likely be a lightning rod for controversy and Robin Ventura would be pelted with questions as to why he was allowing one of the worst regulars in baseball to gobble up middle-of-the-order at-bats when a championship was at stake.
All the the easily understood factors are pushing him out the door.
Which reveals very little about Konerko, who is both adamantly his own man and refuses to discuss the offseason until the offseason. Gordon Beckham is hardly a reliable narrator of The Paul Konerko Saga and delivered an assurance that “he’s got a lot more left in the tank,” which runs counter to him hitting .224/.277/.329 since the All-Star break. Down years can happen for players over 30 and Konerko can attest to recovery being possible, but a 38 year-old first basemen coming off a sub-.700 OPS season is not a smart investment for a team that needs major offensive upgrades.
However, if retaining Konerko is just something must happen for sentimental and leadership-related reasons, his decline coming exclusively in the form of his loss of ability to hit right-handed pitching offers a niche role he could transition to. In a terrifyingly small sample size, Konerko has hit .333/.410/.580 against southpaws this year (which means he’s been worse than you can imagine against righties). Lefty-mashing isn’t a unique skill and isn’t especially great as the single function of a roster spot, but they could make it work…if they had to. A lefty-masher who actually fulfilled that assigned role for once would still be an upgrade over what the Sox got this year from the likes of Dayan Viciedo and Casper Wells.
But since there’s money to spend now, an Andy Wilkins/Aged Konerko platoon is fantastically unexciting, first base is an easy area to acquire a high offensive output from and a possibly elite first basemen is coming on the market, there’s room to dream elsewhere.
There’s plenty of mystery to the roughly 26 year-old Jose Abreu, a bat-only Cuban first basemen who was putting up absurd numbers (a ho-hum .385/.535/.735 is his most recent listing) in the island’s Serie Nacional before defecting this weekend, but the recent success of Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, as well as Aroldis Chapman inspires confidence that reports coming out of Cuba have legitimacy to them, even if this is far from a significant sample. The alternative is picking from a Kendrys Morales, Mike Napoli, Corey Hart triumvirate of free agents. It’s hard to argue how Abreu represents significantly more risk.
Money changes people, but to hope for Abreu is to hope that newly opened cash reserves would change everything about the way the White Sox do business. As much many of the most well-funded teams have installed first-basemen (Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Tigers, Cardinals), teams tend to make room for elite bats. The White Sox don’t so much lose bidding wars as avoid them all together. Wars take time, stretch out long into the offseason and the bidding for a player who has to (after someone figures out where the hell he is on Earth) go through the process of establishing residency in a new country certainly does not promise to wrap itself up particularly quickly.
Rick Hahn was just interviewed on 670 AM this past week, re-affirming the organization’s certainly understandable desire to make moves quickly and have certainty about their roster construction. He also emphasized how much the newfound budget room will be used to beef up international scouting which, while great to hear, also exists to explain that not all this money will magically transform into major league players strutting around next April.
But to speak about Abreu as a concept and less as a player–since there’s nothing to know about the player except the absurd numbers, personal anecdotes from friends and some videos of home runs–he should be treated differently from other free agents because he’s very different.
He’s not a free agent asking for a team to invest his ability to hold up over his mid-30′s, nor someone his previous team already assessed to be not worth what they would have to pay, nor is he a raw prospect the White Sox less-than-revered offensive development crew has to mold.
It’s part of what made an Alex Rios reclamation project intriguing; chances to grab highly-skilled positional talent in its prime are rare and should be treated as such. That goes especially for teams with long, uncertain paths to rebuilding their offense; like this one.
End note: Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez will inevitably get a lot of mention as “recruiters” for Abreu since they do know each other, but I think it would be a mistake to think that Cuban teammates will do much to lower the price the Sox will have to match to be competitors. They’re the decorations on the dining table, they aren’t the meal.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan