The White Sox finished the month with a 9-game winning streak, taking them from third place in the American League Central to a lead they would keep all but four days until the final week of the season. After a 2-for-4 effort against Cleveland on the 27th, Konerko set the baseball community abuzz as he boarded the plane to Tampa Bay carrying with him a .399 batting average.
He never did cross that .400 threshold. As a matter of fact, he finished the season at .298. The out-of-this-world 1.157 OPS on that day in late-May fell to .857 at season end, well behind division rival first basemen Billy Butler and Prince Fielder.
For their part, the White Sox finished the season with a 55-55 record following their 9-game winning streak. Up three games over the Detroit Tigers for the division lead on September 18, the White Sox found themselves down three games by September 30. By no coincidence, Konerko knocked in just three runs over those fateful 11 games.
The White Sox went from playing inspired baseball to playing perfectly average baseball; for every win, there was a loss after their magical run in May. The then-36-year-old slugger saw himself go from Superman to a run-of-the-mill hitter down the stretch. Over his final 99 games after the high watermark .399 batting average, Konerko posted just a .254 average and .724 OPS. The average BA and OPS in MLB in 2012? .255 and .724, respectively.
If Konerko's regression to an average bat down the stretch in 2012 was predictive of his team's fortunes, the same was just as true in 2013.
Over his career, Konerko has amassed a wRC+ of 120. This statistic, which is shortened for weighted runs created plus, measures all of a player's contributions via his bat with adjustments for the league and ballparks he plays in. A wRC+ of 100 is the MLB average over the time period measured, and every point up and down represents one percent better or worse than league average.
Over Paul Konerko's career, then, he has created 20% more runs than an average player in the same amount of at-bats. The creator of this statistic says that a hitter with a wRC+ of 120 over any span of time is "excellent." That number went to 137 in 2005 as he led the White Sox to their first and only World Series title since 1917. There is no doubt that regardless of his future, Konerko will go down as one of the greatest hitters to play on the South Side.
After his slow finish to the 2012 season, Konerko underwent wrist surgery after admitting the wrist had bothered him down the stretch. Could a soon-to-be 37-year-old Paul Konerko actually get better? Maybe, fans thought, if he had a fresh wrist.
Following an otherwise quiet offseason, the White Sox entered 2013 hoping to compete for a playoff spot. They knew that they had not finished well in the 2012 campaign, but perhaps a player like Paul Konerko would be more consistent and help them make another improbable run. Things did not work out so well.
In an incredibly frustrating, long, and ultimately forgettable season, the White Sox finished with 99 losses and the third-worst record in MLB. Konerko would bat just .244 with an awful 82 wRC+, well below the average of 110 for first basemen and designated hitters. While some players can contribute a great deal of value as a sub-standard bat, like slick-fielding shortstop Alexei Ramirez, this is not the case for Konerko.
As he has done before, he rated as the league's worst base runner, according to FanGraphs' baserunning metric. To make matters worse, he ranked among the worst first basemen in ultimate zone rating, with his days as a slick fielder far behind him. All in all, that combination of low run production, horrific baserunning, and poor fielding led to him being the league's third-worst player by wins above replacement. Konerko finished with by far his worst season by WAR, posting a -1.8 compared to 2.0 in 2012.
In other words, Konerko's production alone can be argued to have accounted for four of the extra losses by the White Sox last season, their worst in decades. Recent history tells us that the fate of the White Sox has been inextricably tied to their first basemen, especially Konerko. If he decides he wants to return, which is not a given, general manager Rick Hahn will be best-suited to turn Konerko away.
As the team is currently constructed, the lineup figures to start right-handed batters at 6 or 7 positions, with Conor Gillaspie and Jeff Keppinger splitting time at third base. Alejandro De Aza and Adam Dunn look to be the only everyday players that hit from the left side. The bench, not including Gillaspie, may include only Jordan Danks as a left-handed reserve.
Since Jose Abreu just signed up for $68 million to play first base, the designated hitter position is the only plausible way for Konerko to earn consistent at-bats. That position is currently manned by Adam Dunn, who is owed $15 million in 2014 before becoming a free agent himself. Dunn is not without his own glaring flaws and could potentially use a platoon partner, but he was significantly more productive than Konerko last season. The money owed and Dunn's left-handed bat also loom large as considerations.
Without moving Dunn, bringing Konerko back means the bench will consist of Konerko, Jordan Danks, Jeff Keppinger or Conor Gillaspie, and Tyler Flowers or Josh Phegley. This means there is no reserve shortstop, one reserve lefty when there is a right-handed starter, and only one plausibly useful pinch-runner. That simply does not work.
Getting rid of Dunn would be quite difficult and will not make the White Sox better if it is done to make room for Konerko. Dunn is the only legitimate power threat in the lineup from the left side, for better or for worse. As everyday players, Dunn has been the superior choice for the past season and a half while filling a more-needed role as the lone lefty in the middle of the lineup. After another slow finish to his season, Dunn will not be easily traded given his high salary.
Dunn has a chance to help the team win in 2014 and in the likely scenario that the White Sox are out of the playoff chase, could finally net a valuable return in the trade market by midseason with so little salary on the books. Paul Konerko is a sentimental choice, but his position has already been filled and he would serve little purpose in the short or long term for Chicago.
For the White Sox, putting the past behind them means letting go of Paul Konerko. When he was great, times were great in Chicago baseball. As his body has aged and production fallen, the White Sox have sunk along with him.
A reconstructed and winning Chicago White Sox team needs to put its faith elsewhere.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer on the Yahoo Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and owns the film and TV blog The Renegade's Film Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.
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