Why is Paul Konerko's White Sox future still uncertain?

Brian Kersey

League meetings will take place on Monday, but front office still hasn't met with its first baseman

MLB general managers and owners will head to Orlando on Monday for their annual meetings, and that always feels like the official start of the hot-stove season. The trade rumors that emerge may still be speculative, but at least you have circumstantial evidence for supposed talks.

Yet even with some potential roster-shaping opportunities ahead, Rick Hahn and Jerry Reinsdorf have yet to meet with Paul Konerko about his future with the club. It's supposed to happen sometime this month, but even though the date is now Nov. [Double-Digits], Colleen Kane says the Sox still aren't indicating when it might take place.

Theoretically, Konerko's uncertain future wouldn't affect Hahn's dealings one bit if he heads to Konerko's Scottsdale fiefdom with "Separate Ways" stuck in his head. Just because the Sox haven't confirmed it doesn't mean they don't know it.

But it would be nice if they would let everybody else in on the secret. It's been hanging over the proceedings for a while, and from what I've read and seen, the media is pushing for Konerko's return more than fans are, which is strange.

Some of it's the standard qualifier the beat writers have to tack onto straight-up reporting -- the signing of Jose Abreu and any other related moves don't push Konerko out of the picture and they will meet in November yadda yadda yadda. Sometimes it reads like, "He's just a little redundant, it's still good, it's still good," but it's technically the front office's party line.

But then you see something like this column from Phil Rogers, who "hopes" Konerko can be worked into the mix as a mentor for Abreu, and then lists his career accomplishments for support. None of that particularly applies toward 2014, nor does Jim Bowden's sentiments toward the end:

Konerko never played for his stats, which is why he's held in such high regard around baseball. Bowden calls him "a winner and one of my favorite leaders of the game,'' and believes Konerko would make an excellent manager if he opted to pursue a second career in baseball.

Because I could easily retort that it's weird that a winner played for a team that lost 99 games last year and hasn't led a team to the playoffs since 2008. Or I could say that Konerko said over the last weekend of the season that he's never been good at keeping his focus on things outside of himself.

But that comes off as as really aggressive and kicking a guy when he's down, which isn't the point. Konerko has been one of the all-time great White Sox players, and it's a shame he may not go out on a higher note. He just doesn't strike me as a guy who is fit for any traditional post-playing clubhouse role -- not as a manager, not as a hitting coach, not even as a mentor, at least for a group.

Cleveland carried Jason Giambi in the role Rogers imagines for Konerko. The Indians thought he was so successful that they re-signed a guy who hit .183/.282/.371 last year, and made it among their first items of offseason business. But when you read about how Giambi goes about it, there are adjectives and phrases seldom, if ever, associated with Konerko:

  • "Ever-helpful"
  • "Made everybody he touches better"
  • "Positive"
  • "Impact he's had on guys' individual development"

It's not that Konerko isn't any of those things, or hasn't done any of those things. But when you read about Giambi, it's phrased as active and outward. Here's an example of Giambi calling a meeting after getting swept by the Royals in September. Konerko is a guy who sees meetings as a last resort of a sinking ship.

I'm probably oversimplifying clubhouse leadership to a certain extent. Konerko does have influence, and it's probably done wonders to keep the clubhouse from collapsing during a 99-loss season and the Cold War of 2011. That said, there isn't a rich history of young players who have benefited from being under his wing. The only teacher-student relationship we know about in any real detail is Gordon Beckham, and he seemed to pick up the anguish more than anything. Konerko may lead by example with his work ethic, but there's a lot about his example that isn't particularly inspirational.

Konerko-cloud2_medium

Could Konerko be more of a rallying force in a season where he isn't playing for his future? Maybe, but I wouldn't want to test for people skills by making him try to connect with an introverted, Spanish-speaking Cuban who just got here and can't talk about how it happened.

If you're not inclined to give him extra credit for coaching, all you're left with is a 2013 performance that made him the American League's least-valuable qualified player, at least in terms of fWAR. It's harder to write off an injury when it's a back problem, and a back problem for a 38-year-old with no speed or defensive value.

While we're referring to FanGraphs, Bill Petti released a tool that allows you to compare spray charts from year to year. The first guy who came to mind when playing around with it was Konerko, because in the second half of the season, I learned to abandon hope on any ball he seemed to hit well the other way.

Sure enough (click the image to enlarge):

Konerko-spray1_medium

But it's even easier to see it when you filter out the outs:

Konerko-spray2_medium

There was just nothing for Konerko in right field last year besides the occasional single, but with his wheels, base hits don't do him a lot of good anymore. He's already a limited player, so he can't afford to be a limited hitter. When he's both ... that's how you get that negative WAR figure.

I understand that 2013 doesn't make for a satisfying swan song, but he lucked out in some ways. His problems were but a drop in the manure bucket. It would truly be awkward if he were the reason why an 85-win team didn't win 90 games. Instead, you could spread the blame around and spare Konerko if you wanted to, and instead choose to enjoy whatever highlights happened. He homered in his last home series of the season, which is cool, and he avoided the farewell-tour treatment he said he wouldn't want, but would surely get more of in his known final season.

At least he stayed on the roster through the last series of the season. If his 2013 continues into 2014, you might start hearing midseason DFA discussion. Now that would be a depressing finish. Right now, Konerko is looking at an ending that is merely natural. It's admirable if Konerko wants to fight nature, but there's no reason for the Sox to rage against it.

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