CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko admitted Wednesday that he wouldn’t have returned if he didn’t have a reduced role in 2014, with the challenge now placed on the shoulders of manager Robin Ventura to make the lighter load work to the team’s advantage.
The White Sox announced Wednesday that Konerko will be back for his 16th and final season on the South Side in 2014, working out a deal where the team captain will earn $2.5 million, with $1 million of that deferred to 2021.
Konerko has always maintained that if he gets his regular 600-plus plate appearances his numbers will be there, yet he could be looking at half of that in the upcoming season. In the seasons where the numbers were not to Konerko’s standards (2003, 2008 and 2013) he had 520 plate appearances or less each time.
Now comes the team’s plan to essentially platoon Konerko and Adam Dunn at the designated hitter spot, with newcomer Jose Abreu taking over at first base. As a part-time player and pinch-hit threat Konerko could be facing 350 plate appearances or less.
In his final two seasons in a similar role, former White Sox slugger Jim Thome had 324 combined plate appearances in 2011 and 186 in 2012.
“From here on out, I’m on a quest to learn about the role a little bit, which I have some guys in mind that I’d like to talk to who have done this,” Konerko said Wednesday. “I want to kind of learn. Every guy is different, everybody has a different routine.”
While the White Sox have an outline for how it should all work, manager Robin Ventura and general manager Rick Hahn admitted that nothing has been decided definitively.
“Matchups will have a little bit to do with it,” Ventura said, “Physical stuff guys go through during the year is natural. It’s not going to be set in stone that these guys are playing on certain days. There’s a bit of mixing and matching going on. The individuals I’m dealing with and how professional they are, I don’t sit and bang my head on it.”
Hahn met with Konerko multiple times since the end of the regular season to extend the offer of a roster spot. He admitted Wednesday that it was only in the past week did he come up with a dollar amount for the one-year deal.
“A large part of role, and what we spent a lot of time talking to Paulie about, is just his presence in the clubhouse, and being able to continue to mentor some of our young players as we transition this roster over the next several months,” Hahn said.
So why do it? Why would Konerko take less than one-fifth of what he made last season to essentially be a substitute? Guys like Matt Lindstrom, Jeff Keppinger, Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham all will make more than Konerko in 2014.
“I looked at what I did against lefthanders last year, it's not bad,” said Konerko, who batted .313 in nine at-bats against lefties, with a .923 OPS. “As bad as I felt mechanically as a hitter, and physically I didn't feel that great, I still held my own against them and there was a (revelation): ‘I can still do that.’ ”
Some of the balls I hit, some of the furthest balls I hit in the last five or six years were last year. There were moments there, it just wasn't consistent. That was pretty easy to dissect; it was all the other stuff.”
That “other stuff” is having three first basemen/DH on the same roster. And then there is the issue of Konerko taking a roster spot that could have gone to a younger player.
“There will be questions about the roster,” Konerko said. “I didn’t want to hamstring Robin or the team. That's where most of the due diligence was, trying to figure out where that was and it would be a cool thing to do.”
Ventura remained unfazed about having so many base cloggers in one place.
“(Konerko) will have a different role but he’s a presence in the clubhouse and a lot of respect how he goes about his business and what he’s meant (to the organization),” Ventura said. “It’s a somewhat reduced role, but he can be just as productive throughout our clubhouse not playing as much. It seems to excite him to be that guy and having guys like that in his career who have done the same thing.”
As a guy who figures to be giving a whole lot of advice in the upcoming season, could a coaching role be in Konerko’s future?
“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Hahn said. “Given as much as he’s meant to this organization and as bright of an individual as he is, it’s something you could envision down the road. But the conversation at this point was about his playing career and not about what’s next.”
Given the fact that Konerko has made nearly $130 million in his career and by all accounts has been smart with his money, coaching seems like a long shot. But then again, so did taking a part-time role for a fraction of what he had been making.
“To come back in a lesser role, I look at it like I'm a good guy to have because I have no future or agenda,” Konerko said. “You never know what's going to happen on that field next year. I hope I can impact some games in a good way.
“I just know where this team ended up and I just feel like I have something to offer and do something good. I had a hard time turning my back on that. My only goal is at every turn to get this team going in the right direction. At every turn be pro-team, get this team rallied up and in the right direction.”