Paul Konerko might want to play another year with the White Sox. He’ll be sure to let everyone know in a month or so.
As a franchise legend who has been with the organization for 15 years, the White Sox would like to amenable to such desires, if for no other reason than to head off the tears of blood the fan base will cry if he spends his final season in Arizona, showing up to the park in the fourth inning, taking one pinch-hit at-bat, before leaving to grab beers with Mark Grace.
But as an iron-footed first basemen who will be 38 by 2014 Opening Day and is coming off a terrible season, Konerko is a pretty clear example of a signing more based in sentiment than the best interest of the team’s production. The worst offense in the league probably doesn’t have a roster spot to burn on a 1B/DH coming off a .244/.313/.355 season. However, now that 2013 is over, Konerko is no longer destroying the middle of batting order every night and is willing to take a part-time role in the future, it’s kind of nice that his decline took the form of a complete inability to hit right-handed pitching.
Konerko hit .313/.398/.525 against left-handers in 2013, which was pretty much right in line with his career averages. That offers him a pretty clear role on a team: lefty-killer, pinch-hitter, part-time masher, Adam Dunn platoon partner, etc. It’s not a big role, nor an important role, nor even a particularly unique skill, but it’s a skill. Konerko would be angling for a sweetheart arrangement, but this isn’t like letting the manager’s son throw 250 innings even though he can’t break 75 mph. He can do something.
Unfortunately, it’s still a bit of a luxury role, and the White Sox offense is not a luxury brand. And with all the deadweight they’re carrying, there’s a bit of a roster crunch.
Let’s start with 13 position player slots. 13. We’re set on 13? Alright, now subtract two catchers. Doesn’t matter who. Hopefully it’s no one who has ever worn a White Sox uniform, but there will be two of them and neither of them will be Konerko.
Starting again now at 11, there’s at least four outfielders to take away. Avisail Garcia is locked-in, Alejandro De Aza is less enticing as his arbitration figures balloons but likely is around, Jordan Danks is milling about and the best free agents are in this group. The real question is whether Dayan Viciedo holds here, is shifted to first base, or the Sox carry five outfielders and Viciedo is one of them while also appearing at first or at DH. Let’s just assume there are four from here for now.
That means seven infielders. Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez and Adam Dunn are all expected to be around, Jeff Keppinger is under contract still. That leaves three spots. One of which needs to go a starting third basemen, be it Conor Gillaspie or Marcus Semien, and another for an up-the-middle reserve like Semien or Leury Garcia. There’s a spot left, but it would have to go to whoever is replacing Konerko for most of his at-bats, and leave no room for the man himself.
A key could be Leury Garcia, who could potentially act as a super-sub and gobble up both the roles of backup shortstop and fourth outfielder. Counting Garcia as one of the four outfielders would still leave seven infield slots, which would free up room for Beckham, Ramirez, Dunn, Keppinger, Gillaspie/Semien, New First Baseman and Konerko.
There could be room, but is there priority? Keppinger’s presence is really bothersome, since he can’t cover all the infield positions nor start, but the chances of the Sox eating two years of his deal are minimal. Because of his presence, Konerko would have to be prioritized over a soft landing for Dayan Viciedo should the Sox acquire a corner outfielder, and a decision needs to be made between Semien and Gillaspie at third, provided neither Beckham nor Ramirez are dealt. Konerko’s presence also clogs up any ideas of having Keppinger fill in there, or signing an offense-first catcher and having them play first on their off-days, or transitioning Viciedo there. Not to mention that this would likely mean another Opening Day in Charlotte for Jordan Danks.
The Sox could fit Konerko, but it’s not like it would be seamless, it would be substituting a hard decision about Konerko with hard decisions about others who might actually play beyond 2015.
Also troubling is the timing. Deciding whether to bring on a right-handed platoon DH should be one of the last considerations, after the core of the team has been established. If Konerko wants to return and is ready to accept a part-time role, he’ll need to accept being a lower priority as well.
Suffice it to say, that all this cold and joyless discussion of Konerko’s limited utility is precisely why I wished for a smoother ride into the sunset for him.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan