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Konerko, White Sox should find way to slugger's return

Veteran first baseman, franchise great could serve as mentor to newcomer Abreu @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko has answered doubts his entire career. The only one left at this point is this: Does he walk away now as one of the top hitters in the history of the Chicago White Sox organization or come back for one more year, which would be his first without carrying the weight of the lineup on his strong shoulders. It was clear all season that Konerko would enter free agency, with his future uncertain, and that's where we are.

His decline in power -- from 39 homers in 2010 to 31 in '11, 26 in '12 and 12 last season, when he played at age 37 -- raised questions about his status with an organization that values him for his consistent run production, his leadership in the clubhouse and the enduring legacy of his role in the 2005 World Series championship, the only one for a Chicago team since 1917. The signing of Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu would seem to have pushed Konerko toward the door.

But during the last weekend of the season, Konerko told reporters that he could envision himself accepting a reduced role in 2014, as long as it was with the White Sox. And general manager Rick Hahn has said that the $68 million committed to Abreu doesn't preclude re-signing Konerko.

Here's hoping that the sides can work out a compromise that allows Konerko to come back and serve as a mentor to the 26-year-old Abreu, whom the White Sox believe can be an instant All-Star and, in their wildest dreams, an elite hitter to serve as a counter to Miguel Cabrera, who has piled up 435 plate appearances against the Sox over the last six seasons.

Finding enough at-bats for Abreu, Konerko and Adam Dunn might be impossible, however. The White Sox would love to offload Dunn, whose signing ranks as one of the worst in recent years, but trading a guy with negative WAR numbers, who is owed $15 million will be a huge challenge.

The easy answer is to let Konerko walk and go into 2014 with Abreu and Dunn, hoping that Dunn can have a strong first half to make him moveable at midseason. But the strong relationship between White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Konerko -- not to mention Konerko's standing with South Side fans -- guarantees that the situation will be resolved thoughtfully, with face-to-face talks to see if there is an answer acceptable to both sides.

Not even Frank Thomas received such consideration when he was at the end of his run with the White Sox. That's how significant Konerko has been for such a long time.

At 23, Konerko batted cleanup in the first game he played for the White Sox, sandwiched between Thomas and Magglio Ordonez. He was the No. 3 hitter last Sept. 29, in the 2,187th he played. That's more games than anyone except Hall of Famer Luke Appling has played for the Sox.

That's quite a run for a guy who arrived at age 22, already with his third organization, and trying his third position.

A catcher for Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., Konerko was taken by the Dodgers with the 13th overall pick in the 1994 First-Year Player Draft. He was deemed too big for that position and moved to third base, where his fielding was an issue. The Dodgers dealt him to the Reds for reliever Jeff Shaw in 1998, when they were trying to find a closer to fill Todd Worrell's vacancy, and then-GM Jim Bowden asked manager Jack McKeon to look at him in the outfield.

Cincinnati was auditioning Sean Casey at first base, and Bowden went into the offseason determined to trade either Casey or Konerko for a true outfielder. That process led to the deal with then-White Sox GM Ron Schueler that sent Konerko to the White Sox for Mike Cameron.

"We tried Konerko in left field since we knew Casey couldn't do it, and the experiment didn't work,'' said Bowden, a commentator for MLB Network Radio. "We therefore shopped both Casey and Konerko in order to get a good defensive outfielder. The best offer we had was Cameron for Konerko. We won 96 games the next year. Then we traded Cameron for Ken Griffey Jr.''

It's fair to say the White Sox have liked their end.

In Konerko's second season with the Sox, they won an American League-high 95 games, with Jose Valentin and Carlos Lee joining Konerko, Thomas and Ordonez in producing 20-plus homers and 90-plus RBIs. They would go to the playoffs only three other times but Konerko would help them make the most of their chances.

He hit five home runs (including a grand slam off Houston's Chad Qualls in Game 2 of the World Series) and drove in 15 runs to fuel an 11-1 run through the postseason by the 2005 White Sox. This was a time when the Red Sox were embroiled in a dispute with Doug Mientkiewicz over ownership of the game ball from the last out in the 2004 Series, and Konerko underscored his loyalty to his franchise by handing the ball from Orlando Palmeiro's game-ending groundout in Game 4 to Reinsdorf at the team's downtown celebration.

Konerko ranks in the top four all-time in 10 different categories for the White Sox -- games, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, home run, RBIs, walks, extra-base hits and sacrifice flies. He's second to Thomas in home runs (427, 21 less than Thomas), RBIs (1,361, 104 behind Thomas) and total bases (3,944, five behind Thomas). He would make up the deficit in the last category if he plays next season but it's hard to see how he would get enough plate appearances to make a real run at him in homers and RBIs.

That's OK. Konerko never played for his stats, which is why he's held in such high regard around baseball. Bowden calls him "a winner and one of my favorite leaders of the game,'' and believes Konerko would make an excellent manager if he opted to pursue a second career in baseball.

But that's a theoretical proposition. Paulie is still a ballplayer, until he decides otherwise.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago White Sox, Jose Abreu, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko