Which Lance Berkman Surfaces for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012?

The few discussions surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals these days revolve around getting an impact bat for the outfield. Marilyn Green, from Redbird Rants, gives us her view on the free agents in the mix, Carlos Beltran, Coco Crisp and Cody Ross. If you are interested in seeing how the rest of the roster may shape up check in on Redbird Rants’ Justin McClary’s post today on how to the Cardinals may look to fill the remainder of the bench and pitching staff. These pieces aptly give opinions on how the Cardinals can fill out the rest of the roster. With that in mind, I will switch gears and look at arguably the most important position player for the Cardinals in 2012, Lance Berkman. Berkman has the assignment of filling in the shoes of Albert Pujols. I’m not sure what size Pujols wears, but we can make an easy assumption that Berkman does not wear the same size and that it is actually much smaller. This being a given, what does Berkman need to provide the Cardinals so that the loss of Pujols is not so profound?

Before we get into the numbers, it is important to note that Berkman is a very well respected veteran of the league. He immediately fit right in last year in his first season with the Cardinals. Of course, getting off to a blistering start also helped him quickly get acclimated to the clubhouse, not to mention get into the good graces of the fans. My point is that in terms of a clubhouse presence the Cards have a more than adequate replacement in Berkman. He is a player the younger guys look up to. He has shown in previous seasons that he is willing to help players better themselves.

Let’s start with defense since this is not particularly a big piece of replacing Pujols. Albert is an average first baseman. Beginning in 2009 through 2011, he recorded UZR/150 measures of 2.3, 1.1 and 2.1. Berkman, who played the outfield primarily last season, is not going to win a gold glove either. He is better suited for the outfield where he is not much if any better. In 2011, Berkman played 145 innings at first and racked up a dismal -20.2 UZR/150. This is an incredibly small sample size so we go further back. In 2010 he had a 6.5 UZR/150 in over 700 innings and in 2009 it was a -4.0 in 1141 innings. His defense can be termed erratic. Basically, he is not going to save many runs for the Cardinals at first and could be a slight backwards step from Pujols based on the metrics from the last three seasons.

Where Berkman’s production matters most is at the plate. Obviously no one is expecting him to match Pujols’ numbers. But, there is something interesting here. Berkman’s production at the plate last season was very similar to what Pujols provided.

Not too much of a difference right? Berkman actually had a better WAR last season (5.1) than Pujols (5.0). In no way am I going to suggest that Berkman can give the Cardinals the type of season that Pujols is capable of, but it may not be too far off the mark. Pujols had a down year after a slow start. Berkman outperformed the expectations anyone had for him going into the 2011 season. If we were to assume that Berkman takes a small step back and Pujols gets back to a season like 2010, then there may be more of a disparity. But, even then, we may be talking 2 – 2.5 WAR difference. In the scope of salaries etc. this may not be a huge downgrade.

The biggest issue with Berkman is that he is one year removed from a terrible 2010 where he accumulated a 2.1 WAR with the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees. His 2009 season with the Astros was not a great season either (2.9 WAR). Bill James’ projections for Berkman in 2012 show regressing only slightly. Using the projections in the simple WAR calculator Berkman would compile a 3.5 WAR.  I entered a 5 for defense (1 is best, 7 is worst) and 3 (1 is best, 5 is worst) for speed.

This number falls between the 2009/2010 seasons and last. He will probably perform closer to the 2009 version of himself than he will be the 2011 version. I’m willing to grant him a pass for 2010. James’ projections for Pujols have him registering a 6.3 WAR. I used a 4 for defense and 3 for speed in the calculator. So Pujols garners almost 3 more WAR than Berkman if the projections pan out. Since Berkman will make roughly have of Pujol’s salary, this seems like a fine tradeoff.

One thing to consider is that Berkman would probably hit out of the three hole in which Pujols was formally entrenched. Matt Holliday would thus still be hitting in his customary cleanup spot. Holliday offers very good protection for Berkman, who could now see much better pitches in 2012 than he did in 2011 when he hit 5th in 81 games. This could lead to better numbers than are being projected.

Which Lance Berkman shows up in 2012 will go a long way in determining how well the Cardinals will perform in 2012. It seems like Berkman will provide exactly what the Cardinals are paying for and possibly more. He will not have the same production as Pujols and no one expects it out of him. If he is able to meet the projections James set, the Cardinals will be happy. Unfortunately, when a team replaces a player with someone who played a different position on the same team, you’re still missing a piece of the puzzle. So, we are right back where we started. I ask you to refer back to Marilyn’s post mentioned above to see who the Cardinals may add to fill in the gap. Right now, the discussions are pure speculation to which I can not add to. If it gets whittled down to one or two, or if the Cards sign one of them, I’ll provide the appropriate analysis.

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Tags: Albert Pujols Cardinals Lance Berkman Matt Holliday St Louis Cardinals

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