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5 for '14: What will be Konerko's impact?

3/27/2014
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- Determining whether Paul Konerko goes out with a bang or a whimper won’t be as easy as counting his at-bats and seeing his run-production numbers.

To Konerko, going out with a whimper would have meant retiring after a disappointing 2013 season that saw the White Sox lose 99 games. In Konerko’s mind it’s not about delivering All-Star numbers, it’s about how the team performs. Guess it’s no surprise he’s had a long run as team captain.

If there was an over/under in Las Vegas on how many at-bats Konerko might get this season, the number probably would be in the area of 200. Considering that he has been under 500 just twice in the past 15 seasons, and never under 444 in that stretch, he’s looking at quite a step back.

Konerko is fine with it, though, sounding all spring as if he has come to terms with being an aging role player. Torn over whether or not he should come back, he consulted the White Sox, as well as Adam Dunn, who he could end up taking at-bats from.

Once he found out everybody was on board, he decided to come back in an effort to go out on his terms.

Konerko has never dealt with inconsistent at-bats, which suggests that he might have trouble with the sporadic chances he will get. Konerko typically uses four at-bats a night to work out his issues at the plate and will now have to figure out what is wrong in the batting cage.

But the simple fact that he isn’t seeing this role as a demotion, but rather one final opportunity to perform, puts him ahead of the game.

Even if the numbers suffer this year, Konerko’s mere presence should make a difference. Stepping to the plate in the late innings, carrying with him a history of success in the game could raise an opposing pitcher’s anxiety levels. And any time manager Robin Ventura wants to get the opponent’s nasty left-handed pitcher out of the game, it probably would be as simple as sending up Konerko to pinch hit.

Less visible will be the impact Konerko has on the next generation of White Sox players. He already has invited Adam Eaton to his private hitting sessions, and new first baseman Jose Abreu has remarked that it will be a honor to play alongside such a productive major league player.

Most of all, though, Konerko’s late-inning at-bats will be must-see, on-your-feet events, even if a game is well in hand one way or another.

And who knows? Maybe an injury to Adam Dunn or Abreu, or his own production, will start to push him toward 300, 350, 400 at-bats this year and he is able to turn back the clock for stretches.

Konerko sits 21 home runs behind Frank Thomas on the White Sox’s all-time list and logic says he probably won’t reach his former teammate’s 448 total. But it is that time of the year when optimism trumps logic so maybe he will land atop the list.

At the very least, one more grand slam would give him the all-time franchise lead at 11. He currently sits ties for that mark with his manager, Robin Ventura.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

Nagging injuries have crept up on the 38-year old Konerko in each of the past two seasons. Last year was a back issue while in 2012 there was a wrist problem. A reduced schedule should benefit him health wise, although sporadic play and unfamiliar long stretches between activity might not be good for him either.

While Thomas’ 448 career White Sox home runs might be hard to catch for Konerko, there is one milestone that he can reach quite easily in the early part of the season, even if he isn’t playing much. He needs just five total bases to tie the club record of 3,949. The current owner of that mark is, of course, Thomas.

If Konerko is supposed to be the designated hitter against left-handed pitchers, while Adam Dunn faces righties, then he might not start on Opening Day as the Minnesota Twins will have right-hander Ricky Nolasco on the mound. But Ventura did say this week that he is thinking about giving Konerko the start, which would be his 16th consecutive opener overall. He was at first base for 13 White Sox Opening Days and was the DH twice (1999, 2000).