White Sox face uncertain future as Konerko era draws to close

Monday September 16th, 2013

Paul Konerko is in the final days of his 15th, and likely last, season on the south side of Chicago.
Nam. Y. Huh/AP

The record book will show that the worst team in Major League Baseball in 2013, technically, was either the Marlins or the Astros. Each club should soon slip past 100 losses -- they had 94 and 98, respectively, with 13 games remaining -- but this was how it was supposed to be all along for a pair of rebuilding-from-the-studs franchises.

Worse than finishing with baseball's poorest record overall in a given season is finishing with baseball's poorest record among teams that actually thought they might win. This is a race in which there is no longer much competition, and there will likely be no silver linings for its loser.

At this time one year ago, the White Sox were clinging to a slim lead over the Tigers for first place in the American League Central, and though they ultimately finished three games behind Detroit, they entered 2013 with a roster that was largely unchanged and with the goal of another competitive year. Now, after having lost 15 of its last 17 games, Chicago is 58-91 and looking up at even clearly rebuilding teams like the Mets (67-82), the Mariners (66-83), the Twins (64-84) and, most distressingly for its fans, the crosstown Cubs (63-86). When you tell Adam Dunn, the only member of the White Sox with an OPS better than .750, that you are writing a column about the team, he will say, "It'll be a short one."

The White Sox' sudden demise has coincided with that of the player who has long been their lineup's beating heart, Paul Konerko. There has been much talk, recently, of endings and legacies in baseball, as Mariano Rivera prepares to retire, as Derek Jeter's ankle has people wondering if he will soon do the same and as longtime Rockies first baseman Todd Helton this weekend announced that this season will be his last. Little has been said, though, of Konerko, who has been with his current team longer than any other player except for those three.

Konerko is in his 15th year with the White Sox, and during that time the team has accumulated 10 seasons with at least a .500 winning percentage, nine top-two finishes in the AL Central, more wins than any AL team except the Yankees, Red Sox, A's and Angels and one World Series title, in 2005. Over his first 14 years in Chicago, Konerko batted .285, with an OPS of .866, and averaged 30 home runs and 93 RBIs. This year, though, he is hitting .247 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. His OPS, .679, ranks him 126th of 141 qualifiers, just behind Giants journeyman outfielder Gregor Blanco.

Konerko is 37, and his back hurts, and he cannot seem to do any longer what he did for so long with such consistency. He is in the final year of a three-year, $37.5 million contract. He looks around his clubhouse, and many of the faces that had been with him for so long, A.J. Pierzynski and Alex Rios and Jake Peavy and so on, are gone. While he declines to talk much about his own potential retirement -- "I'll worry about that when the season's over," he says -- he is not one to suggest he'd like to play until he can no longer grip a bat, nor does he deny the realities of time. "The clock is always moving," he says.

CORCORAN: White Sox' prospects don't look much better in 2014

Time also seems to have gotten away from Konerko's organization, which is now in that unenviable middle ground in which it's neither winning nor, really, rebuilding. Even should Konerko return to the White Sox next year, which seems unlikely given the team's direction and Konerko's age, drop in production and likely cost, he will never again be what he once was. Though the club has been no more definitive in its expressions about Konerko's future with the team than he has, the Sox will fundamentally be embarking upon a post-Konerko era for which it seems ill-prepared, particularly regarding the offense that has scored 542 runs this season, fewer than every team but the Marlins. Apart from Dunn, the lineup includes no reliable (and certainly no star-level) veteran bat, and none appears to be forthcoming from the farm. This spring, Baseball America ranked the White Sox' system as the second-worst in the game. The organization's top six hitting prospects, as judged by BA before the season, have posted the following batting averages in the minors this year: .178, .229, .241, .201, .254 and .167.

You can identify some reasons for optimism. The pitching staff seems strong, headed by 24-year-old Chris Sale, whose 3.08 ERA might earn him some Cy Young consideration despite his club's desultory year ("For me, moving forward, Chris Sale is going to be the guy here," says Konerko), and continuing through 24-year-old Jose Quintana (7-6, 3.56), 25-year-old Hector Santiago (4-9, 3.53) and 23-year-old prospect Erik Johnson, who was 12-3 with a 1.96 ERA in Double- and Triple-A. "I think our system is really improving, especially with the young arms," says Konerko. "You can see it in spring training, the last three or four years. It used to be that we couldn't match up prospect for prospect late in games -- it didn't seem like we had anybody who threw hard -- but recently we have." Konerko points to closer Addison Reed and hardthrowing young setup men Nate Jones and Jake Petricka as examples.

You can also argue, as Dunn does, that this year's struggles resulted from a lot of players having down seasons all at once, himself included. "People probably think I'm stupid, but we're not as bad -- I don't think -- as what we've shown on the field," he says.

You might believe that outfielder Avisail Garcia, a 22-year-old who is batting .300 for the White Sox after being acquired from the Tigers in the three-team Peavy trade in July, has it in him to become a perennial All-Star. You might also believe that top hitting prospect Courtney Hawkins -- the 13th pick in the 2012 draft, and, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, a superior athlete -- put up that .178 minor league batting average because he was a 19-year-old playing at too high a level (High-A), and will figure it out.

But you can more convincingly argue that the White Sox failed to properly anticipate the end of the Konerko era, holding on to their old assets just a bit too long -- thereby, perhaps, not maximizing their returns for the now traded Peavy, Rios and relievers Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton -- and shifting their view to the future just a bit too late. Then again, just because you know the end will inevitably come doesn't mean it's easy to time it. Building a sustained contender is both rare and difficult and the White Sox, behind Konerko and former general manager Kenny Williams, kept the window open for nearly a decade and a half.

Now, with Williams having been promoted upstairs, his first-year successor and former right hand man, Rick Hahn, will take the lead in figuring out how to fling it wide once more. That process is just beginning, and will take time.

"It's the cycle of life in the big leagues," says Konerko. "It goes by quick."

For the White Sox of the Paul Konerko era, it seems, finally, as if it's gone for good.

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