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Berkman’s Future

Lance Berkman has been nothing short of a star in his time with the Houston Astros. Since 2000, Berkman has made five all-star teams and finished in the top five in MVP voting four times. This praise is supported by five seasons of 6.0+ WAR and 43.2 total WAR since we began calculating win values in 2002. This puts him 4th among hitters, behind only Pujols, Rodriguez, and Bonds – all surefire hall of famers.

Berkman’s future is now in doubt, however, as the Astros, mired in a rebuilding period and with current owner Drayton McLane attempting to find a buyer, may decline his $15 million 2011 club option. The 34 year old first baseman suggested that if the option is not picked up that he would choose not to return to Houston on a different deal and would instead test the free agent market.

Certainly there would be teams that could use Berkman either as a 1B or as a DH. Berkman’s defense has not been an issue thus far, but he is certainly not elite, and any long term deal would likely end with a DH role, given his age. The man can still hit – his worst wRC+ came in 2007, and that was at a still stellar 135, and he is capable of putting up numbers in the 160s, as he showed in 2008. As a hitter of that caliber, Berkman probably has a few good years left in him at the least, and should be a coveted asset come the 2010-2011 winter.

Is Berkman worth $15 million, though? It’s very close. At $3.5MM per win, his 3.6 WAR CHONE projection puts him at $12.6MM for a one year deal. A 4 WAR season, which I would predict for Berkman, would run at $14MM. With his age and the Astros’ current position on the win curve, he probably isn’t worth the money to them. At the trading deadline, the Astros could probably pull in a decent haul of prospects for him, a much better use of that asset.

As far as Berkman’s next contract goes, there isn’t a very good analog to Berkman in this year’s free agent class. Berkman is probably better than anyone that hit the market this winter, and even at 35, he should be able to get a contract that pays him into the middle of the decade. A fair market value would probably be a 4 year, $50MM contract, taking into account the discounts players typically give for longer term deals. However, Berkman does have “money skills,” with loads of HRs and RBIs, and may command something above Jason Bay‘s deal (4/$66MM) and maybe something similar to John Lackey‘s new contract (5/$82.5MM).

The question is how Berkman will handle aging. If he can defy nature into his late 30s and possibly his early 40s and remain a star slugger, he could be worth every penny of a large contract and even make a run at the Hall of Fame. If not, his career could end much like that of Albert Belle – derailed by injury – or Mo Vaughn – simply unable to sustain production in his later years.