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In an interview with Scott Merkin, Kenny Williams gave some blanket statements regarding Paul Konerko’s future with a familiar caveat:
“That’s pretty much all I’m going to say on it, because I don’t know what the future holds,” added Williams. “I don’t know how we are going to finish.
“We are driven by the revenue stream that comes in. People might not like it but it is what it is. We have to at least be able to be a break-even operation, and try to win at the same time.”
When Williams drops these lines, it’s code for one of two things:
- Fans only have themselves to blame.
- There’s cash available, but nobody has to know that except for me and Jerry.
It’s an old saw that’s hard to take too seriously, since he blamed fans for not showing up for a midweek series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009 (the Sox marketing department owned up to jacking up the prices), only to trade for Jake Peavy and buy Alex Rios.
Konerko, though, is doing his part to make himself hard to fit in a budget. He’s never had a season like the one he’s putting together this year, and his two-homer, five-RBI day against the Royals on Sunday puts him in breathing distance of a 1.000 OPS. He’s never come close to crossing that magic number, and he’d already be there if hitting a ball to the wall was an automatic double.
He’s got a career high going in all the triple slash categories (.322/.399/.598), and even that feels like it’s underselling him considering it’s saddled by a subpar May. Take that month out of the numbers, and he’s hitting .342/.416/.644. Obviously, you can’t just remove May to evaluate an entire season, but that second line represents the kind of hitter he has been for the last three-plus months.
It’s safe to say nobody saw that coming. Before the season, the projection system ZIPS said Konerko had an 11 percent chance of hitting .300. It was similarly skeptical of him hitting other benchmarks, like a .375 OBP (15 percent), 140 OPS+ (6 percent) and 30 homers (14 percent).
You can’t blame the system for those assessments. Konerko had hit .260/.350/.475 over the last three seasons combined, and looked to be in the midst of your standard decline. His 2008 season season doesn’t quite fit in, but he had a thumb injury for a couple of months that really sunk his game.
The thumb flared up on him a little last year, but he hasn’t had the issue this season. That’s one big reason why he’s reaching unprecedented heights, but the others are tougher to figure out. Visually, he looks fantastic and balanced, using all fields and shortening his swing when a single will do. He’s always been a good fastball hitter, and this year he’s murdering them. So maybe he’s finding different ways to expect a heater.
My guess is that he’s the same hitter he always was, just a healthier one and a hotter one. Occam’s Razor and all that.
The good news is that Konerko is 34. Considering Konerko’s prime never approached the season he’s enjoying now, I don’t think his representation can successfully argue that he’s established a new baseline for talent. This season might inflate his value, but it shouldn’t put him out of the Sox’ range.
The only problem is that Konerko isn’t alone. Entering the season, it looked like the Sox would get some upcoming salary relief in the form of a new catcher for A.J. Pierzynski, a new fifth (or fourth) starter, and maybe a new first baseman. But Pierzysnki’s resurgence also makes him a tough case, the Sox have no major-league ready starters, and Carlos Quentin is no longer a good value.
It’s times like these we start to see the importance of investing in the draft, and the Sox are always at the bottom of that list. Splurging on an inflated Konerko would be easier to handle of the Sox had other good values to even it out. Instead, Alexei Ramirez is the only one who truly fits the description looking around the diamond, and he’s positioned next to a fiscal drain in Mark Teahen. Likewise, Sergio Santos’ contributions in the bullpen don’t cancel out the money going to costly underachievers Bobby Jenks, Scott Linebrink and Tony Pena.
That’s why I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Williams. Re-signing Konerko — which seems to be the smartest move in this case — is going to cost him money and make him uncomfortable. That’s part of the job; in fact, he’s already gone through it with Konerko after the 2005 season.
But it would be a lot easier if the White Sox farm system were conducive to developing merely average, adequate, serviceable players once in a while. Their stinginess toward amateur players makes it harder to find eventual big-league contributors on the second day of the draft, or in Latin America.
That forces them to overpay for other teams’ mediocrity, and that sometimes leads to overpaying more unremarkable players when those guys can’t cut it. Those contracts add up, and make it complicated when figuring out whether they can keep their own star talent. That’s a backwards system, and it’s hard to see when the Sox will address that. It won’t be before a decision needs to be made on Konerko, that much is certain.