The easiest road would be to retire, Paul Konerko mused.
He wouldn’t have to face the questions about his fit with a retooling White Sox team, or take on the challenge of a part-time role that is sure to feel alien to him at times in 2014.
He likely would have retired this year if not for the 99-loss disaster that was 2013, and so the Sox captain will return for his 16th and final season on the South Side – not in search of a farewell tour, but of a better ending for him and the teammates he is being asked to mentor.
The Sox and the 37-year-old first baseman/designated hitter announced Wednesday they agreed to a 1-year deal worth $2.5 million, with $1 million being deferred to 2021.
“I’m a White Sox for life, and it killed me to see what went on last year, and helping along with that,” Konerko said. “So it’s tough when I have an opportunity to come back to turn my back on that. [I] can help make it better. ... That will make me feel good when I’m gone.”
Konerko will take a big cut from his 2013 salary of $13.5 million, which was divided so that he receives $1 million each year until 2020. But his decision wasn’t really about money as much as how he will fit with a Sox team that already has two first basemen/designated hitter types in Adam Dunn and Jose Abreu.
Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Konerko will serve as the DH against some left-handed pitching, contribute in certain situations off the bench, and assist Abreu as he transitions into the Sox’s primary first baseman.
Abreu, a 26-year-old Cuban who has never played in the major leagues, was signed to a 6-year, $68 million contract this fall. Dunn, who is owed $15 million in 2014, will be used as the DH primarily against right-handers, Hahn said.
“[Dunn] might get fewer chances against lefties due to Paul’s presence, but that’s something we’ve been discussing internally over the last several months and Adam’s aware of,” Hahn said. “If anything, perhaps a day off here or there is going to help 'Dunner.'”
Hahn said Konerko also will serve as “an incredibly important mentor and leader within our clubhouse.”
“Paul represents what we hope young White Sox players evolve into being, both on and off the field,” Hahn said. “And having him around as a role model and a sounding board has a great deal of value to us as we turn over this roster.”
Konerko has been thinking for a while about the reduced role, and other teams contacted him about comparable jobs. He talked with numerous people about how it would work – Dunn, manager Robin Ventura, new Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson, and former Sox player Jim Thome, who once played a similar part.
Konerko said he accepts the new challenge, knowing he probably wouldn’t have been able to deliver properly if the Sox wanted him to play as many as 150 games.
“I had to come to grips with that,” Konerko said. “... Accepting the role, I’m probably way ahead of everyone else, because I knew this is where I was headed. I already had started processing this a while ago.”
Konerko ranks second in Sox history behind Frank Thomas with 427 home runs and 1,361 RBIs with the team. He hit .244 with 12 home runs and 54 RBIs in 126 games in 2013, during which he battled a back injury.
He and the Sox said Wednesday that a move to fewer games will be an adjustment, but one they feel he can make successfully.
“It is a challenge for a guy of his stature,” Ventura said. “He not only has to come and be productive on the field, but have a little more energy [for] things he can do off the field and in the clubhouse.”
Born: March 5, 1976
Hometown: Providence, R.I.
Drafted: 13th overall pick in 1994 MLB Draft by the Dodgers
Teams: Dodgers (1997-98), Reds (1998), White Sox (1999-present)
Career stats: .281 BA (2,297 hits in 8,185 at-bats), .356 OBP, .491 SLG, 402 2Bs, 8 3Bs, 434 HRs, 1,390 RBIs, 1,340 Ks, 911 BBs, 9 SBs over 2,268 games in 17 seasons
FYI: Currently 42nd on all-time HRs list, 75th on all-time RBIs list. … ALCS MVP in 2005. … AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2004. … Six-time All-Star (2002, 2005-06, 2010-12). … White Sox team captain from 2006-present.