In a pairing that appears most unusual, Lance Berkman will play with the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2011 season.
Berkman last played a non-first base defensive position in 2007 and the last time he manned an outfield position for the majority of a season was 2004. The answer to those trivia questions will become more current next season as Albert Pujols moves for no man. Berkman lacks the skills to play the other infield positions and with Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus guarding left and center fields, it appears right field is the default location for the man nicknamed Fat Elvis.
After trading Ryan Ludwick to the Padres, the Cardinals mostly used John Jay and Allen Craig in right. Jay (26 in March) hit .300/.359/.422 while receiving enough support in the Fans Scouting Report to peg him as the Cardinals’ best defensive outfielder. Craig (27 in July) did not fare as well offensively (.246/.298/.412) or defensively (FSR had him at -2 runs). Berkman may celebrate turning 35 in February, but over the last three seasons he’s hit .281/.398/.504; and even last year managed a collective line of .248/.368/.413 while suffering through the lowest batting average on balls in play and home run per fly ball ratio of his career.
At Berkman’s age, there is no guarantee he’ll be able to regain the power that made him a lock to hit 20-plus homers a season (as he did in each of his 10 full seasons before 2010). An added obstacle is an unexpected nuisance. Switch hitters usually show little in the way of platoon splits, but not Berkman. He may as well give up batting as a right-handed hitter, because it is not working out for him lately (2010-2008 wOBA of .236, .305, and .352). The other side of the plate proves more kind to Berkman (.372, .416, and .441).
The severity of such a complication relies on the manager’s cleverness in handling the batter. If Tony LaRussa shows his wit by pinch hitting a right-handed compliment into the lineup in Berkman’s place against a late inning lefty here, and giving Berkman an off-day against an elite lefty there, then some of the grime is removed from the situation. If nothing else, LaRussa could at least demote Berkman lower in the order against worthwhile lefties.
The great unknown with Berkman is his defense in the outfield. The Fans Scouting Report gave him low markings on foot speed, first step, arm strength, and arm accuracy. Those ratings occurred while he played first base, but the attributes represent the most necessary skills to provide defensive value in the outfield. One aspect the fans voted Berkman high in was instincts. Now, definitions of instincts may vary across the board, but at least Berkman has some experience in the outfield too, even playing center (which should come in handy once Rasmus is benched for inauspicious lengths of time).
Another point in Berkman’s defensive favor is his teammates. No team can truly hide an outfielder, but the Cardinals are the best equipped to marginalize outfield defense. St. Louis’ collection of outfielders saw the third fewest balls in zone last season and the second fewest in 2009 thanks to groundball heavy staffs. Berkman will still be required to field a good number of balls, but with any luck his defensive value will be minimized by good pitching and overshadowed by good hitting.
The Cardinals are paying him for 1.6 wins (if the going rate is $5 million per win) and Berkman has reached 2 in every full season of his career. His transition will be padded with a five-run bonus (moving from first to right has some perks). Ultimately, though, he should be fine as long as he hits.