As Paul Konerko set out on his contract year in 2010, I thought his next deal would be in the neighborhood of two years and $20 million.
That estimate might have been a tad generous when looking at recent track record. Over his previous three seasons, Konerko had an OPS+ of 111 (.260/.350/.475), which is nothing special for a first baseman, especially one with his (lack of ) foot speed. But teams pay for reliability, and Konerko is seen as a no-nonsense professional across the league.
Then Konerko ruined everything by posting an MVP-caliber season, with career highs in OBP (.393), slugging (.584) and OPS+ (158). He blasted both his projections and my best guess out of the water, and sure enough, the Sox basically extended his current deal for another 2 1/2 years, with deferred money softening the blow in 2013.
In some ways, the timing is unfortunate. Common sense says Konerko doesn't have a chance of repeating his 2010 season, and when combining his true talent level with his age (35 when the season starts), there's a significant chance he could be significantly overpaid.
But flags be damned, I'm feeling pretty good about Konerko's prospects in 2011, and I have a veritable 4-H Club of reasons behind it.
No. 1: Health
The MVP(art) of the White Sox's MVP was the ligament in Konerko's right thumb, which had bothered him since he suffered a bone bruise early in the 2008 season. He had taken cortisone shots to deal with the pain, including one right before the start of the 2010 season. Since shots can only be administered once every few months, the Sox hoped it would get him to the All-Star break.
As luck would have it, his thumb never even came up in conversation. It's hard to tell if it was 100 percent healthy, since Konerko avoided talking about the thumb when it gave him fits, but since there were no reports of more midseason treatment, I have to think that the news was almost all thumbs-up. The addition of Adam Dunn theoretically allows Ozzie Guillen to give Konerko more days off as a preventive measure..
No. 2: Home
Konerko couldn't have done what he did in 2010 without the cozy confines of U.S. Cellular Field. The splits tell the story:
Outside of 2006, when only one point separated his home and road OPS, Konerko could be classified as a creature of The Cell. That's a "problem" the Sox will happily live with if he can clear an .800 OPS on the road, but I do wonder if it depressed outside interest somewhat.
No. 3: Heat
According to FanGraphs, nobody was better against fastballs in 2010 than Paul Konerko. The Bill James Handbook 2011 varies a little bit, saying he had the third-highest OPS off heaters (1.080). Either way, that's awesome.
But while that would normally indicate that he's maintaining his bat speed, Keith Law had his doubts:
He's a dead-fastball hitter who is drifting into the older hitter's habit of "cheating" on fastballs, starting his bat early to catch up to the better velocity but leaving himself vulnerable to breaking stuff and changeups; if he doesn't start his bat early, he's late on the pitch.
Konerko can offer a strong counterargument: The Handbook says he had the highest OPS against changeups in the American League (1.112). FanGraphs has him tied for the eighth-most runs above average. That's a career-best performance against the change for Konerko, who has been susceptible to them in previous seasons.
He did struggle against curveballs at an unprecedented rate, which might be a point for Law, but if Konerko can club the fastball and hang with the changeup, I think he'll be mostly set.
No. 4: Humanity
As good as Konerko was in 2010, he did leave some room for improvement. He came crashing back to earth in May (.233/.324/.389) after setting the franchise mark for April homers with 11. He also had a 2-for-30 slump towards the end of the year.
Lest we make too much of Konerko's few rough patches, it must be noted that even his second-worst monthly OPS (.936) still beat his previous single-season high of 2006 (.932). All I'm saying is that Konerko didn't need a perfect year to post the numbers he did. He just mashed like mad around the slumps.
Now's the time in the program to hedge against my own enthusiasm. Namely, the hand problems could always resurface, and so could his mental block. Konerko was healthy in 2007, and he still couldn't get his OPS above .700 for good until June 4.
So I'm counting on Konerko to regress in 2011, of course. However, the elements have lined up in his favor to where a step back still puts him squarely in 2005-06 territory, and I think those are numbers all White Sox fans would be happy with.