Cardinals Nab Old First Baseman Lance Berkman for the Outfield

by Eno Sarris // 

Perhaps the title provides a little clue about the probability that this move works out well for St. Louis. While the deal was short (one year), the dollars were perhaps surprisingly high ($8 million) for a move that flies in the face of some poor trends in Lance Berkman‘s production over the past few years.

Age is a bitter beast that comes for us all. Since Berkman turned 32 in 2006, he’s turned south in a pronounced way. He had 665 plate appearances that year, right in line with his career production. Then, in 2009, he stepped to the plate 563 times. Last year? 481 times. Along the way, he had knee surgery and had some arthritic changes in the joint that don’t bode well for his mobility in the outfield.

Though defense doesn’t factor in to fantasy numbers directly in most leagues, it can have secondary effects. Berkman may find that he can’t play daily in the outfield on that knee – he hasn’t patrolled the outfield regularly since 2007, and that was only for 31 games. He also hasn’t been rated as a positive defender in the outfield since 2003 – what happens when Tony La Russa gets tired of watching Berkman muff fly balls?

All of this is before we even look at Berkman’s offensive statistics, which have also shown decline. Since 2008, Berkman has seen his isolated power decline (.255 ISO down to .166) while his BABIP has also dropped (.341 down to .282). While BABIP is often used as a stat to suss out luck on batted balls, players do have some control over the number, usually tied to their speed and their ability to rack up line drives. The numbers, in this case, line up with what we can see with our eyes: Berkman has lost a step and a little bat speed.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Only 18 first basemen over 35 have put up better than an .800 OPS since 1975, and only Mark McGwire, Andres Galarraga, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado hit more than 30 home runs beyond that age. Berkman failed to put up an .800 OPS for the first time since he’s become a major league regular, so he’s in danger of repeating that feat. As for the second part, he’s only managed 30 home runs five times in his career – the last was in 2007. He probably won’t make that group a quintet.

The Big Puma has always had a great approach at the plate, so in leagues that count on-base percentage, he may still be a boon this season. More traditional leagues should spend no more than a late-round pick on Berkman.

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