Saturday, January 12, 2013

Can Berkman Bounce Back?

Berkman's getting older, but he can still hit (KeyeTV)
The Texas Rangers, suddenly short on offense after the free agent departures of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, replaced some of their lost firepower by signing Lance Berkman to a one-year contract worth $10 million plus a vesting option for 2014. The six-time All-Star will serve as his new team's Designated Hitter in the wake of Michael Young's being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies last month.

Berkman may never get another major league contract, so if this is the end of the line for him then his career has come full circle. This deal brings the Texas native back to the Lone Star State, where he was born, raised, and educated before the hometown Houston Astros drafted him out of Rice University in 1997. Berkman debuted with the big club two years later and spent the first dozen seasons of his big league career as an Astro. One of Houston's Killer B's along with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Beltran and Derek Bell, Berkman helped lead the team to four playoff appearances during his time there, including the franchise's only World Series appearance in its 50-year history. The starstruck 'Stros were no match for the Chicago White Sox, who took a cue from the Red Sox and ended their own interminable championship drought with a Series sweep. Berkman was one of the few Astros who offered any resistance, batting .385 and knocking in six of the 14 runs his team scored in the series.

The nucleus of that team aged out and Houston hasn't been to the playoffs since. Bagwell never played again. Biggio deteriorated into a replacement level player and hung on just long enough to get his 3,000th career hit. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte stuck around for another year before returning to the Yankees. Morgan Ensberg fell apart in his thirties, as so many ballplayers do.  But has his team crumbled around him, Berkman soldiered on.  He inherited the first base job from Bagwell, one of the finest to ever man the position, and continued to be a force in Houston's lineup until 2010.

That summer, with Berkman scuffling and the team trying to go in a different direction, Astros GM Ed Wade dealt him to the New York Yankees the day of the trading deadline even though NY had its own switch-hitting first baseman in Mark Teixeira. Berkman followed Roy Oswalt, who'd also been sent packing to the northeast (Philadelphia) two days earlier, out the door. The trade was bittersweet for Berkman, who desperately wanted to win but had spent his entire career with Houston up to that point. But the Astros were going nowhere, headed for another losing season, and the Yankees were just nine months removed from winning the World Series.  Berkman never seemed comfortable in the Big Apple and his offensive woes persisted.

Trading Berkman and Oswalt marked the onset of a rebuilding process in Houston. In the time since, the club's front office bulldozed the roster by unloading the rest of their established veterans (Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Hunter Pence, and Brett Myers). In their two full seasons without Berkman, the Astros are the worst team in baseball and have lost twice as many games as they've won.

Many wrote him off after 2010, when he looked finished at the age of 34 and endured the worst full season as a professional. He struggled mightily at the plate, hitting just .248 with 14 home runs and 58 RBI between the Astros and Yankees. Some doubted he'd be able to find a job for 2011.

But after accepting a one-year, eight million dollar contract from the Cardinals (nearly a 50 percent pay cut), and moving to right field out of respect for Albert Pujols, Big Puma committed himself to improving his fitness routine over the offseason.  Noticeably trimmer and in the best shape of his life, Berkman returned to form in 2011. He got off to a great start with his new team and never looked back, finishing the season with a .301/.412/.547 triple slash line that produced the third highest OPS+ in the league (behind league MVP Ryan Braun and runner-up Matt Kemp). The NL Comeback Player of the Year also belted 31 homers, plated 94 runs, scored 90 times and drew 92 free passes while protecting Pujols and Matt Holliday in the Cardinals lineup. He finished seventh in the MVP race and went on to play an integral role in the team's World Series championship that fall. Berkman delivered several key hits and was especially lethal in the Fall Classic, batting .423/.516/.577 as St. Louis prevailed over Texas in seven games.

Not surprisingly, the Redbirds picked up his $12 million option for 2012, but Berkman went bust when he took four separate trips to the Disabled List and appeared in just 32 games. Once again, his future looked uncertain. When he grounded out in his final at-bat on the last day of the regular season, it seemed very possible that we had seen the last of Lance Berkman in a major league uniform. He was left off the Cardinals postseason roster. He watched from the sidelines as St. Louis came within one win of returning to the Series, only to squander their 3-1 lead over the eventual World Series champions and go home empty handed. He considered retiring.

Now, in a twist of irony, Berkman will suit up for a team still chasing its first World Series championship in part because of the damage he inflicted on them two Octobers ago. Funny how that happens in sports.

Berkman will be 37 in February, the same age Bagwell was in his injury-wracked final season, an age when most players are deep into the twilight of their careers. It goes without saying that he may not have much left in the tank. He's playing on a bum right knee that required two surgeries last year, adding to the host of leg issues that have prevented him from reaching 500 at-bats in a season since 2008. Given his age and injury history, at this stage in his career he's all but guaranteed to miss a good chunk of time.  Even if he manages to avoid the Disabled List, the Texas heat figures to wear him down over the course of a long season.

Signing Berkman is a calculated risk, but could prove to be a massive bargain if he has another renaissance season. Moving to the most hitting-friendly venue outside of Colorado will boost his numbers, or at least offset some of his age and injury-related decline. DH'ing full time should limit his injury risk and keep his body fresh. Plus it's always nice batting in the heart of a loaded lineup. Ron Washington has already said he's going to bat his new DH third to replace Hamilton's spot in the order. That means he'll have plenty of RBI opportunities with Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus setting the table for him. He'll also have Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, and possibly Justin Upton (?) batting behind him. Berkman's primed for a comeback.

So what can the Rangers (and fantasy owners) expect from Berkman in 2013? His age definitely worries me, but not enough to label him "washed up." 37 is old in baseball years, but not too old to be a productive Designated Hitter, as Paul Molitor, Jim Thome and Edgar Martinez have proven. Father Time catches up to everyone at some point, but Berkman was a beast at 35 and hit well enough in limited action last year to suggest that his skills are still intact.  Even taking his age and medical issues into account, I feel confident saying he will rebound this year if his body holds up.

Still, it's tricky trying to forecast what Berkman will do in 2013. Bill James projects him to play 134 games, club 21 home runs and bat .273/.389/.485 (.369 wOBA).  FanGraphs is equally optimistic, predicting him to sock 19 dingers and bat .279/.384/.470 (.366 wOBA) in 123 games. Texas has to be thrilled if it can squeeze that kind of production out of Berkman. Last year, the team's DHs (mainly Napoli and Michael Young) batted a disappointing .265/.323/.432 with 18 homers and 78 RBI. If healthy, Berkman is a good bet to reach or exceed those numbers. I'll split the difference and peg him for 20 bombs, 80 RBI, and a .275 batting average. His ceiling is 2011 and his floor is 2012; I'm guessing he winds up somewhere in the middle.

He's definitely worth a spot in AL-only leagues and I'd take a flier on him in mixed leagues. Offense is hard to come by these days, and you need to get it where you can. Even if it's in the form of a 37 year-old playing on one leg.

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