Over the last few days, we've expounded upon several of our underlying beliefs about this particular off-season as it pertains to the Rangers -- on Monday, I examined the seeming inflation of the free-agent market and the abundant potential for overpayment, to which Prashanth responded the next morning with a thorough explanation of why the Rangers are in a position to overpay for marginal wins. But what about the players whose statistics, age, skill composition and contractual history align in such a way that they're inherently likelier to be overpaid than the field -- and, worst yet, at greater risk than most of falling off a cliff?
I would argue that Vladimir Guerrero belongs in this bucket, and to a lesser extent Victor Martinez as well, but that isn't where the list ends. Texas is, of course, reported to be pursuing Guerrero despite their refusal to tender him arbitration, and were also reported to be in "big" on Martinez before Detroit's four-year, $50 million offer proved too enticing for him to resist, and now it seems we may have a third name to add to both lists; according to FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal, the Rangers are "interested" in Paul Konerko, the 34-year-old masher who finished second in the American League in home runs (39) last season and finished fifth in the MVP balloting behind the consensus 'Big Four' comprising Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Jose Bautista.
On the surface, it's an idea that makes some sense -- right-handed power was a commodity that Texas chased for what seemed like the better part of the 2010 season, a desire borne in part from the fact that the Rangers were merely mediocre against southpaws on the whole (.266/.326/.391; 97 sOPS+) and badly exposed at certain points. Guerrero was not a problem in this regard whatsoever (.338/.395/.536; 149 sOPS+), but Konerko was a monster of titanic proportions against left-handers (.339/.441/.661; 194 sOPS+) and utterly dominant overall (.304/.379/.562), and it's pretty easy to see how those raw numbers and the excessive power would engender significant intrigue.
Now, the first issue to arise is one of defensive flexibility (or a distinct lack thereof) -- Konerko still logs upwards of 80 percent of his total games at first base, and signing him likely necessitates pushing Mitch Moreland aside into some sort of lesser role, but you could deal with that if you knew he was a reasonably good bet to continue producing at a 4-5 WAR level and would only require a per-year salary commensurate with that of his salary the last few years ($12 million). The problem is that you don't know that, and it's doubtful you'd want to bet on it either -- and what's more, there's a rather extraordinary confluence of factors that could render his next contract quite painful from the team standpoint.
There are the great numbers last year, but there are also the preceding three seasons in which he averaged merely .260/.350/.475 along with 27 home runs annually, which is unnervingly close to league-average production from a first baseman. One of the basic tenets of player forecasting is that you incorporate multiple years of past performance into the projection, and so you have to begin wondering which version of Konerko you're going to get; unfortunately, the prevailing bid for his services will likely pay him at a level closer to his 2010 numbers than his 2007-09 numbers, and I hardly think he's going to bank less than the $12 million he earned in 2010 after clouting 39 home runs.
There's his age, which is concerning in that he leans more towards the "old-player skills" profile and would thus seem to be at a greater risk of rapid decline, and also in that his defense is already hovering around passable, at best, with not much margin for further degradation. And there's also this concerning scouting-side tidbit from ESPN.com's Keith Law: "He's a dead-fastball hitter who is drifting into the older hitter's habit of "cheating" on fastballs, starting his bat early to catch up to the better velocity but leaving himself vulnerable to breaking stuff and changeups; if he doesn't start his bat early, he's late on the pitch."
I'm reminded of the infamous 2004-05 off-season, when Texas, fresh off an 89-win season, tried -- and failed -- to sign Carlos Delgado, who was entering his age-33 season at the time. The thought at the time was that he could produce big numbers at first base for at least three more seasons, during which the Rangers were expecting to seriously contend; ultimately, he produced very good age-33 and -34 seasons (the first with the Marlins, and the years thereafter with the Mets), tanked his age-35 season, somewhat rebounded in his age-36 season, and was then brought down by injuries. Konerko fits the same general player mold as Delgado, but has never been as dangerous as Delgado was during his prime, and is several years further along in the aging process -- 2011 will, in fact, be his age-35 season. I'm not suggesting this comp is perfect in any way, but it's something that I can't clear out of my head.
If you've continued reading all the way to this point, it probably won't surprise you to learn that I'm not especially high on Konerko -- you might be able to feel okay about him next year, but anything beyond that is a huge question mark, and it's very likely he'll snag a multi-year deal worth eight figures annually. A two-year commitment in the $20-22 million range is probably about as daring as I'd be willing to get, but my speculatory numbers aren't the truly interesting thing here. I realize we're dabbling in rumors and hearsay and that Texas is still entrenched in wait-and-see mode with all of these free-agent hitters as a consequence of the Cliff Lee situation, but seriously ... Guerrero, Konerko, and probably another name tomorrow? Something's telling me this front office isn't nearly as fond of the rotating-cast-at-DH idea as I would like to think it is.