Monday, April 5, 2010

What should the White Sox do about Paul Konerko?

One of the biggest challenges that will face White Sox GM Kenny Williams this off season will be what exactly to do about the teams first base situation. The White Sox have had the luxury of riding the powerful right handed bat of Paul Konerko since acquiring him in 1999 for center fielder Mike Cameron. Since coming to Chiacgo, Konerko has been a consistent offensive force, powering the team to multiple playoff births and helping to secure the World Series for the franchise in 2005.

Konerko however, is no spring chicken. By the time the 2011 season rolls around Konerko will be 35. One of the main tenets of managing a small-mid payroll team is that teams need to be very careful when handing money out to aging veterans. The team must also consider the potential side effects of letting a fan favorite and team captain leave. I'm not much for intangibles, but Konerko has been the heart and soul of the franchise for a long time and letting him walk would undeniably change the dynamic inside the clubhouse.

On a pure statistical level, Konerko hasn't been an elite hitter since 2006, and given his age it's unlikely he will be again. In 2009 the MLB average OPS for first basemen was .845 - Konerko posted a .841 mark - his highest since '06, making him just slightly below average offensively. According to UZR he's been right around league average defensively his entire career, posting a +3.2 mark last year. In terms of WAR, he's posted his best mark of the past three season last year with a +2.7. Over the past three seasons however he's averaged just +1.93 wins above replacement.

On the free agent market, a player is worth about 4.5m per win above average. Using that rough estimate as a guideline, Konerko would typically be worth ~8-10m per season on the free agent market. However as we've seen the past couple years, the market for aging corner infielders/outfielders has been greatly depressed. Teams, it would seem, are coming to realize the relative ease with which these players can be replaced. As said earlier of course, the White Sox stand to lose a bit more than just Konerko's production.

With all the factors; offense, defense, intangibles, and corner infielder market value on the table, what would a fair offer be? I don't think it would be the 8-10m per annum our basic WAR extrapolation would suggest. That's primarily because there will be perhaps a half-dozen capable first basemen on the market next year. Just running down the list of guys who are probably worthy of starting jobs (in no particular order);

Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche, Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, and of course, Konerko. Technically Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman could be free agents as well, but I'd imagine their respective teams will be exercising their options. Beyond those players, there will be as many as a dozen others looking for work.

Of course, between today and opening day next year some of those players will be resigned, others will be traded. But either way, there will be precious few seats available in the game of musical chairs that is Major League free agency.

Without a clear 1st base propsect pegged to replace Konerko at first, should Williams decide to make resigning Konerko a priority, perhaps a 2 year deal at 7m per season with a team option for a third year at 5m would be fair. Konerko gets a bit of financial security, and the White Sox gain some small measure of protection against further regression. Frankly there are few places I can see Konerko slotting in elsewhere - Atlanta being the primary location to me. But even then, I can't see him getting more than the offer above.

The White Sox could try and go lower than that of course and try and pinch Konerko - and it might work. But I'm also the sort of person who believes that if you're going to keep a player like Konerko, you should do your best to treat him as fairly as possible.

Should Williams decide NOT to resign Konerko, as you can see there will be plenty of other options available to him in free agency. Newly acquired Jake Peavy of course, has lobbied to bring over former San Diego teammate and superstar Adrian Gonzalez. That of course is a whole other conversation for a different day. But the point stands - there will be no shortage of options via free agency or trade.

If none of those options are viable, could the White Sox choose to shift Carlos Quentin out of the outfield and over to first base? People always kick around talk of players moving positions, and generally it's foolishness, but there have been plenty of range-limited corner outfielders who've made the switch, so it isn't out of the question.

There is no shortage of options available to Kenny Williams and it'll be interesting as always to see how he plays his hand.

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