Lance Berkman: High Risk, High Reward

By Editorial Staff

When the Cardinals decided to sign free agent Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million deal just before the start of baseball’s winter meetings, they knew that there was at least somewhat of a risk involved. After all, this is often the case with veteran free agents coming off an unusually sub-par season. St. Louis is not typically a team that takes many chances in free agency, but given the fact that they missed the playoffs after a total collapse last year, general manager John Mozeliak had no choice but to make this move. I don’t think it was a move that many people saw coming, but after Berkman drilled Alex Rodriguez with a ground ball during batting practice last season, there was no way the Yankees were going to resign him.

Looking at Berkman’s body of work over the course of his 12 year career, there would appear to be very little, if any risk involved in the Cards’ new acquisition. However, there are three things that jump out as possible concerns moving forward: Age, injury history, and last season’s statistics.

At the age of 34, Berkman is in the latter half of his MLB career and, barring some sort of rejuvenation with St. Louis, you have to figure that his numbers will start to decline sooner rather than later. Lance will be 35 years old at the start of the 2011 season, which will make him the third oldest position player on the roster.

Other than his first year in the majors, Berkman has only failed to play at least 130 games twice, so he’s not exactly injury prone. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, he began the 2010 season on the 15-day disabled list. He was placed on the 15-day DL once again in August and ended up playing in a total of 122 games last year. The knee may be fine for right now, but it should be interesting to see if it will hold up for an entire season in the outfield. Although Berkman has 841 career outfield starts, the last time he played the outfield regularly was 2004.

Up until the 2010 season, which was by far the worst of his career, Berkman had been as consistent and productive as almost anyone in the National League. Last year, he posted career lows for a full season in runs (48), hits (100), homers (14), RBIs (58), steals (3), batting average (.248), and on base % (.368). I do realize that the knee problems had a lot to do with his struggles at the plate, but these stats are part of a major statistical downturn since 2006. The Cards are banking on Berkman to bounce back, adding to the risk of the signing.

Despite the three concerns that I mentioned, I have confidence that Berkman will pay off for the Cardinals in the long run. First off all, Berkman brings new energy and valuable experience to the clubhouse. Obviously, he is very familiar with the NL Central, playing his entire career with the Houston Astros until being traded to the Yankees at the deadline last season. In 767 games against the NL Central, he has hit .299 with 169 home runs and 540 RBIs. Berkman has a knack for getting on base (Career .409 OBP is fourth among active players), which will surely provide some protection in the middle of the lineup for Pujols and Holliday. Not to mention, the guy is a 5-time all-star and he has finished in the top five of MVP voting four times. I think it’s safe to say that when healthy, Berkman has proven time and time again that he can get the job done.

As far as fielding is concerned, current left fielder Matt Holliday has volunteered to play right field if the team needs him to. It is unclear if that will happen, but at least it would allow Berkman to play in the outfield position that is most comfortable for him. After Berkman passed his physical, John Mozeliak expressed that the “Big Puma” had lost some significant weight and felt like he was running well, which has to be encouraging. If Berkman is able to stay healthy and field his position well, he could prove to be a big difference maker in the Cardinals’ pursuit of the playoffs. Even if things don’t work out, rookie Jon Jay showed last year that he is fully capable of handling a starting spot in the outfield if need be.