The Cardinals and Lance Berkman agreed on a one-year extension on Thursday worth $12 million.
According to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the deal includes a full no-trade clause. Though Berkman had retained 10/5 rights and signed a no-trade clause while with the Astros, he was without protection this season. The Cardinals weren’t very active in attempting to deal him as the trade deadline rolled around — much to the surprise of many analysts, myself included — and perhaps this is why. Then again, the events could be mutually exclusive as well, since he could have re-signed with the Cardinals even after being dealt this season. Unless, of course, he let the Cardinals brass know that trading him would detrimentally affect their odds of bringing him back.
Regardless, he’ll remain with the Cardinals through at least next season. But what position will he play? It’s easy to assume this is a great deal that makes everyone happy, but much more is potentially lurking beneath the surface.
For starters, the deal itself definitely appeases both parties. Berkman has had a career resurgence this season, hitting .300/.411/.552, with the fourth-highest wOBA in the National League, at .403. That mark also leads a Cardinals team featuring Matt Holliday (.394) and Albert Pujols (.389). The Cardinals may fall short of their epic late run for the Wild Card, but Berkman was a major reason they had a fighting chance to begin with. Per WAR, his 4.5 this season represent his highest total since 2008, when he managed to hit about the same, but also posted a +13 UZR and +5 baserunning score. That UZR stands out among his 2004-11 like the oddity in those “Which one doesn’t belong?” tests.
If not for poor fielding, Berkman would rate even higher. But fielding can’t be ignored, and in the outfield, he just isn’t very good at it. He plays right field because no other spot suits him on the diamond except for the one occupied by the franchise’s face. In any event, Berkman has proven himself a dynamite hitter. While he may not sustain a .385+ wOBA as a 38-yr old, all the Cardinals care about right now is his age 36 season, which makes this deal a clear win for the team. Players capable of hitting like Berkman generally have leverage in the market, and he forewent a potential multi-year deal to remain in St. Louis. Getting a superstar hitter and not having to pay him when he rapidly declines is tremendous for the Cardinals.
The situation gets rather murky when fielding is discussed in more depth, specifically where Berkman will play on the diamond. Is it possible that the Cardinals were eager to ensure Berkman remained in the fold, before the off-season rolled around, as an insurance policy should Pujols sign elsewhere?
One-year extensions worked out in September aren’t common, and all reports had indicated that extension talks between the Cardinals and Berkman had recently lost momentum. The Cardinals were also reportedly growing less confident that Pujols returning is a slam-dunk. While some may say that signing Berkman was a move to entice Pujols into staying, just like locking up Chris Carpenter and re-signing Matt Holliday, the other side to that coin can’t be ignored. The move may have been made to keep a talented player on the roster, but also to ensure that an elite level hitter plays first base next season, no matter his name.
It also ensures that the Brewers can’t sign Berkman to replace Prince Fielder after the season ends. The Cardinals made out like bandits on this deal, but the potential backstory behind the timing and rationale could have much more lasting effects than Berkman’s production next season.
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