Monday, October 13, 2014

Nice to Konerko You

Konerko was a mainstay on the South Side for 16 years (Chicago CBS)
Lost in the hype surrounding Derek Jeter's dramatic departure from baseball was that Paul Konerko, beloved member of the Chicago White Sox for 16 years, also retired.

It was fitting that Konerko, one of the game's most underappreciated and little-talked about players, went out without much fanfare. Overshadowed by Jeter as well as his own teammates (Jose Abreu and Chris Sale were pretty good this year, huh?), he slipped out of the game, leaving on his own terms.

Like Jeter, Konerko was a model of consistency for many years. But also like Jeter, Konerko simply wasn't good enough to be an everyday player anymore. While Joe Girardi kept sending Jeter out to shortstop and batting him second everyday, Konerko graciously accepted a part-time role and played only 81 games this year. At .207/.254/.317, his bat was no longer potent enough to merit anything more than that, especially as a first base/DH type.

Konerko's bottoming out marked the end of a four-year decline in which he went from one of the game's best hitters to one of its worst. Such is life for an aging slugger in his mid-to-late 30s. Given his struggles at the plate the last two years (.639 OPS), it's hard to remember that he was an All-Star as recently as 2012 (for the sixth and final time).

It's also easy to forget that Konerko played for two other teams before he joined the White Sox. A first round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1994, Konerko debuted with Los Angeles in 1997 but was traded to Cincinnati the following year. After the 1998 season he was traded again, this time to Chicago, for Mike Cameron straight-up.

Cameron went on to have a fine career, but not with the Reds. He was included in the package that netted Ken Griffey Jr. one year later. Konerko, meanwhile, would go on to play 2,268 games in a White Sox uniform.

Better yet, he immediately broke out upon joining the White Sox. His first year with the team was his third in the Show, and the then-23 year-old shined in his first full season. Konerko clubbed 24 home runs and 31 doubles, knocked in 81 runs and batted .294/.352/.511. Granted, those numbers look a lot more impressive today than they did back in 1999, but he maintained them in each of the next three seasons as well.

After a down year in 2003, Konerko responded with back-to-back 40 home run campaigns, the latter coming in 2005. The White Sox won the World Series that year, ending an 88-year drought (which nobody seemed to care about because of what Boston had done the previous fall). Konerko played a big role, slamming five home runs and driving in 15 as Chicago breezed through the postseason. He took home ALCS MVP honors as well.

Konerko would only get one more crack at the postseason--in 2008--but the White Sox were eliminated from the ALDS by the upstart Rays. Once again Konerko shined, smacking two home runs and posting a 1.040 OPS over the four games. He remained a dangerous hitter over the next several seasons, putting up huge numbers through his mid-30s as he continued to pile up impressive career numbers. When it was all said and done, he finished his playing days a .279/.354/.486 hitter with 439 home runs (42nd all-time) and 1,412 RBI. He also notched 2,340 hits, 410 doubles, over 4,000 total bases and close to 1,000 walks.

A poor man's Eddie Murray, Konerko never led the league in anything important but was as steady as they come. He exceeded 20 home runs 13 years out of 14 from 1999 through 2012, and in the one year he missed he had 18. He topped 100 RBI six times and was over 90 three other times. Eight times he had at least 30 doubles.

Add it all up and Konerko was a pretty good first baseman. Not a Hall of Fame one, but a very good one nonetheless.

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