Chicago teams address needs at 1B
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Both Chicago ballclubs filled their needs at first base with the exact opposite player -- and both got exactly what they needed.
The White Sox retained their longtime franchise player, Paul Konerko, a team captain and confidant of the club chairman. Coming off a career year, Konerko's three-year, $37.5 million contract is designed to keep him on Chicago's South Side for the rest of his playing days.
The Cubs became the sixth team to contract the services of Carlos Peña, the well-traveled vagrant who just completed the worst offensive season of his career and is likely to rent, not buy, on the North Side of the Windy City.
Konerko, of course, is right-handed and no star with the glove; Peña is lefty and known for his slick fielding. And neither is Adrian Gonzalez, the All-Star both Chicago clubs reportedly tried to pry away from the Padres before the Red Sox acquired him last weekend.
But the real difference is in the fortunes of their employers. The White Sox, having signed free agent Adam Dunn earlier this offseason, are a legitimate title contender if they can comfortably rely on a new closer, get Gordon Beckham back on track and keep Carlos Quentin healthy.
The Cubs, like Peña, are set for a transition year. Despite slugging 28 home runs, Peña hit just .196 last season with a .325 on-base percentage and thus called 2011 a "platform year." His agent, Scott Boras, referred it as a "pillow contract" for its comforts in allowing Peña to reassert his market value with a bounceback season, just like another of his clients, Adrian Beltre, did with the Red Sox last year. Peña had averaged 39 home runs the previous three seasons with a .382 on-base percentage.
It's the same for the club, which, make no mistake, is in its own transition after finishing fifth in the National League Central. The upcoming season will be the last for third baseman Aramis Ramirez, pitcher Carlos Silva and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who rather remarkably will make $41.9 million. And then in 2012 starters Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster -- and their $33 million in payroll -- will come off the books. When freed of all that money, the Cubs can properly reassess their direction.
Peña's $10 million deal is no pocket change, but signing him for only one year gives them an extended tryout with the first baseman and suggests they've learned from the previous contractual albatrosses they've issued. It's an eight-figure deal but is minor collateral damage in the grand scheme of things, given the Cubs' ability to assess a potential sleeper slugger, especially if acclaimed hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo can turn Peña around.
"It's not a secret that even in our better years, in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, we lacked high power from the left side," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "That's hard to find. And usually when you find it, some of the marquee guys in the game, they stay where they are at for a long, long time."
His bat and glove ought to help the Cubs remain competitive, even if cracking the top-heavy NL Central race will be difficult with the Reds and Cardinals as the favorites. The team will win games without breaking the bank, while Peña has his opportunity to prove himself in a hitters' ballpark and under the supervision of a talented instructor -- it's a symbiotic relationship destined for the pages of a biology textbook.
The White Sox, meanwhile, were playoff contenders in 2010 until mid-September. Their one glaring hole -- presuming they retain the rest of their team, which they did, except for inconsistent closer Bobby Jenks -- was at designated hitter.
Their ideal lineup puts Quentin in right field and Konerko at first base, and last year in the 106 games in which the DH was anyone but those two hitters Chicago received only a .247 average and eight home runs with 32 RBIs from that lineup spot. Now Dunn, who has hit at least 38 home runs in seven straight seasons, fills that role.
Konerko is also the heart and soul of the White Sox, so much so that manager Ozzie Guillen said he wouldn't have named a replacement captain had Konerko left the club.
"To be the captain of the White Sox -- and I am the manager, that's a pretty tough one, because you've got to earn it," Guillen said. "First of all, not because what you do on the field, it's what you do with your teammates. The respect you've got in the clubhouse, the presence in the lineup."
The final negotiations on the contract between general manager Kenny Williams, assistant GM Rick Hahn and Konerko's agent, Greg Genske, were consummated over sushi at Kimonos, a restaurant in Disney's Swan Hotel.
"He might have gotten a little bit more because Rick and I started to tip a few back after a while," Williams said with a laugh on Wednesday.
It was a funny line from a confident man who, with the blessing of ownership, continued to extend an already large budget to keep in place the final piece of a championship contender.