by Mike DePilla
They say your true feelings about a proposition sometimes don't reveal themselves after something significant happens on that front.
For example, after Chicago was eliminated in it's bid for the 2016 Olympics, I felt a smirk and sense of relief come over my face, which meant that I guess I never wanted the Olympics to come to my hometown, despite my ambivalence about the situation in the weeks prior.
Fast forward to the last few weeks. I've maintained all along that I was mostly ambivalent about Paul Konerko returning to the Sox. Sure, I saw the merits of his return, but I also knew that he'd be expensive and that the Sox could make progress on other fronts if he went elsewhere.
Overall though, if you told me two months ago that the Sox signed not one of but both Konerko and Adam Dunn- a far-fetched dream that came to fruition yesterday when the Sox inked Konerko to a non-ridiculous three-year, $37.5 million deal, I imagine I would have been at least warm and tingly, if not downright giddy.
And yet somehow I'm not.
It sounds harsh, so I don't want to trust it, but while the rest of Chicago goes ga ga over Paulie, my feeling is that in almost all ways except for sentimentality, the Sox made the wrong decision to re-sign Paul Konerko.
Why am I saying this, pouting on a day that should be joyous? It's not like the Sox didn't improve yesterday. They did. It's not like Paulie is "bad", in fact he was the best first baseman on the free agent market. They are a better team for 2011 based on this signing, and I applaud them for the big financial commitment they took on in order to put a winner on the field.
It's just that, long term, there were many more advantages to signing Derrek Lee and letting Paulie semi-retire in Arizona. And, apparently, I had strong feelings for them.
1. 2011 payroll hit. While Lee hasn't signed yet, he's expected to fetch a price tag in the $6 to $8 million range- about $5 million less than Konerko will make next season. Konerko vastly outperformed Lee in 2010, but, going simplistically by OPS, Lee has outperformed Konerko in four of the five seasons previous (2005 through 2009). Going strictly from a value-to-dollars ratio, Lee will likely be the better buy, as Konerko's slightly-better production likely won't offset the increase in salary.
The fact that the Sox are willing to throw this kind of money around is fantastic, but that $5 million could have been used to improve the Sox in other areas, namely the bullpen. If you were faced with the choice of Konerko + Gregory Infante or Lee + JJ Putz (who just signed a deal with the DBacks for $5 mil/year), which would you pick? Since the addition of a bullpen arm will now have to come at the expense of a player already on the 25-man roster (or a prospect), I think I'd take DLee + Putz.
2. Length of contract. Konerko had a tremendous season in 2010, which even impressed the hell out of me- a known Konerko Detractor. And I am willing to admit he will outproduce Lee in 2011, if only slightly. But what about 2012 and 2013? I don't expect either player to be anything special by that point, but while Lee could have been signed for only one year, the Sox had to guarantee three years to Paulie to bring him back. As his production dips into his late 30s, a $12.5 million salary may become more of a hindrance than a discount.
This prohibits the Sox having a better hitter than either Konerko or Lee on the team manning first base in 2012. Prince Fielder will be a free agent and, despite the Scott Boras factor, would have possibly drawn a bid from the Sox (especially with the Red Sox and Yankees entirely out of the mix). Dayan Viciedo is also a decent bet to outperform Konerko in 2013.
As an aside, it will be very interesting to see what the Sox do with Viciedo now that he's blocked at 1B/DH by Dunn and Konerko for quite a while. Will Ken Williams keep him as injury insurance? Or will he trade him for an upgrade at SP/RP/OF? What happens there also affects the value of the Konerko signing. If Williams deals Viciedo for a difference maker in any of those areas, it adds value to the whole deal.
3. Draft Picks. As a Type-A free agent, Konerko would have earned the Sox two first round draft picks in 2011 if he signed elsewhere. (Lee, as a Type B, wouldn't have cost the Sox anything.) The Sox farm system is pretty bad, and can use all the help it can get with high draft picks, especially considering they lost their first rounder to the Nationals when they signed Dunn. Not a deciding factor, but another example of the Sox shortchanging the future for a slight improvement in 2011.
4. Defense. Derrek Lee is, by any and all standards, a superior defensive first baseman to Konerko. While Paulie isn't as bad overall as his small-sample-size-UZR suggested in 2010, his range is the first base equivalent of D'Angelo Jimenez. Lee is still a plus defender. By 2013, Konerko may be a below-average defender at first.
5. His legacy. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I think it would have been great if Konerko went out on top, riding off into the sunset after his best season in a Sox uniform. Who cares if he retires as a Diamondback? He was also a Dodger and a Red, and no one will remember him for that. What if Paulie's numbers deteriorate more quickly than expected? What if the Sox don't compete as expected in the next three years? What if the Sox, in a cost cutting move to finally address the future, have to dump Konerko in the last year or two of his deal, possibly eating a significant chunk of the salary? Those seem like much more unceremonious ends to the Konerko Era in Chicago.
You can argue that none of those factors outweigh the benefit of having Paul Konerko on the White Sox for 2011, when the team is very likely to make a serious run at the playoffs. And I hope you are right. There's no questioning the team's commitment- with the chairman extending the payroll far, far beyond what anybody expected, this is an organization that truly wants to win.
But you can also say the Sox could have had a superior defender and roughly equal hitter for a significantly smaller salary and shorter commitment, allowing them to improve the team elsewhere (in 2011 and 2012) and adding two valuable draft picks to boot. Instead, they gave a raise, and a three-year commitment, to a guy who is 35 years old and will regress on both offense and defense over the length of the contract.
In the end, it is going to look remarkably like it did in 2005: Paulie, backed by a huge contract year, gets a lofty contract that, from a production standpoint, he will most likely not live up to. His numbers are bound to go down, and eventually he will become more of a DH than a 1B.
But then I soften and think of the other end of the spectrum. Even if there is statistical evidence to suggest this isn't a great signing and that the future is once again being sold out, the fans love it, and that is worth a lot. It's not unlike the Simpsons episode in which Lisa discovers hero Jebediah Springfield was a fraud, but refuses to wreck the perception to an adoring public.
Ultimately, as Lisa said, "the myth of Jebediah Springfield/Paul Konerko has value too!"
Just ask Luke and Ryan, pictured above, how they feel about their hero returning. Or my dad, who somehow thinks this will magically lead to Jermaine Dye returning to Chicago as well. So maybe this is a perfectly cromulent signing after all. Chicago is happy with Paulie. Paulie is happy with Chicago. In some ways, what more you can ask?
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