By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) In December, the White Sox re-signed Paul Konerko to a one-year, $2.5 million contract, with $1 million deferred until 2021. The money isn’t an issue, essentially a rounding error for a projected payroll of $90-100 million, but the roster spot he’ll take is extremely valuable.
In the past 20 years or so, pitching staffs have expanded from around 10 to 12, leading to increased specialization beyond the five starters and closer — eighth-inning specialist, left-handed one-out guy (LOOGY), long reliever, spot starter, etc.
So what’s the significance? Each roster spot dedicated to pitching is one fewer for offense and defense, making each of these roster spots that much more valuable, so the players need to be more flexible. At this early point, this is what the White Sox roster looks like:
|C||Tyler Flowers||SP||Chris Sale||Outfield||Alejandro de Aza|
|1B||Jose Abreu||SP||John Danks||Infield||Jeff Keppinger|
|2B||Gordon Beckham||SP||Jose Quintana||Catcher||Josh Phegley|
|3B||Matt Davidson||SP||Erik Johnson||Left handed||Adam Dunn|
|SS||Alexei Ramirez||SP||Felipe Paulino?|
|LF||Dayan Viciedo||CL||Nate Jones||Bubble||Jordan Danks|
|CF||Adam Eaton||Setup||Dylan Axelrod?||Bubble||Leury Garcia|
|RF||Avisail Garcia||RP||Matt Lindstrom||Bubble||Conor Gillaspie|
|DH||Paul Konerko||RP||Scott Downs?||Bubble||Marcus Semien|
|RP||Charlie Leesman?||Bubble||Blake Tekotte|
Some of these spots will change as spring training progresses, and this illustrates just how thin a bench is on a roster with 12 pitchers. The White Sox allocation of pitching slots will vacillate between 11 and 12 as the year progresses, but absent drastic changes in philosophy won’t dip below that.
When teams carry 11 pitchers the bench is already stretched. So with 12 pitchers, it’s important for each player to perform multiple roles. A backup catcher is a must, as are backup infielders and outfielders who can play multiple positions. This is what makes Alejandro de Aza valuable — he can play all three outfield spots as well as pinch hit and pinch run. However, with 12 pitchers, it will be difficult for Jordan Danks or Blake Tekotte to make the cut.
Jeff Keppinger is signed through 2015 at $8.5 million. He can play multiple positions, and if he can rebound from a less-than-stellar 2013 he can be a useful bench player. But it will be difficult to find room for Marcus Semien, Conor Gillaspie or Leury Garcia. Of course, trades or buying out contracts can change everything.
Konerko brings leadership value to the White Sox as a team captain with a positive clubhouse influence and could be helpful to Jose Abreu in making the adjustment to the major leagues. He could even bounce back and contribute offensively, but to do that he’ll need plate appearances, which will be difficult to get as a backup first baseman/designated hitter against left-handers.
This is the cost of using a roster spot on a player like Konerko, one limited in how he can be used. Robin Ventura will be in a bind when faced with late-inning situations like defensive substitutions or left-handed pinch hitting. Even as a pinch hitter, Konerko will handcuff the White Sox because they won’t automatically be able pinch run for him if he gets on base.
Konerko has said all the right things since his re-signing, and nothing in his past suggests he won’t be anything but a positive clubhouse presence in 2014. When the White Sox acquired him in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1998 season for Mike Cameron, he had a grand total of seven home runs, 29 RBIs and a .214 batting average with two teams, so his subsequent success was certainly not guaranteed.
This 2014 season will be his well-deserved retirement tour, and he deserves all the accolades the White Sox will throw his way and belongs in any conversation of best White Sox players of all time. After this year, retire his number, give him a statue, make him a goodwill ambassador.
Just don’t expect much from him in 2014. Then again, that probably wasn’t the point in his re-signing anyway.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.