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How Many More Years Does Berkman Need to Play?

This week we received news of two notable retirements, Nomar Garciaparra and Brian Giles. Both ranked among the best players of their time, and will probably receive some Hall of Fame consideration. Satchel Price took on Garciapparra’s case while Ben Jedlovec discussed Giles’s, but both concluded that the players will likely fall short. I guess those articles put the Hall of Fame in the front of my mind, because when I read that Lance Berkman might miss Opening Day following knee surgery, I wondered about his chances of enshrinement in the future.

The numbers Berkman has accumulated in his 11 big league seasons are nothing short of spectacular. He has hit .299/.412/.555, good for a .408 wOBA. His career OPS+, 147, matches that of Alex Rodriguez, while his wOBA falls just .004 short of A-Rod. With numbers like that, comparable with one of the best players of this generation, it might seem like Berkman has a strong Hall case. Unfortunately, this surface analysis leaves out a number of important factors.

One major aspect that separates Berkman and Rodriguez is position. Through his career Berkman has played the outfield and first base, spending some time in center, but mostly at the corners. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has posted his stats as a shortstop and third baseman, where offense isn’t as easily found. Still, a 147 OPS+ and .408 wOBA represents an excellent career, no matter the position. In other words, while voters should keep Berkman’s position in mind, his rate stats are at a level where it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.

What might cost Berkman support is his time in the league. He has played 11 big league seasons, though only 10 with more than 400 PA and nine with more than 550. That puts him a bit short in the counting stats, which certainly count heavily with voters. He’s accumulated just 1,575 career hits and 313 home runs, leaving him a bit short by HOF standards.

Berkman still has plenty of time, at least by traditional standards. He will play 2010 at age 34, which means he could still have a number of productive seasons. After 2010, assuming he recovers well from the knee surgery, he should have somewhere around 50 career WAR (from the career WAR leaderboard), which would put him around 170th all-time. He also figures to pass a number of Hall of Famers this year, including Kirby Puckett. With a few more productive seasons he could push himself ahead of a few more HOFers.

The question, though, is of whether Berkman will continue to play into his late 30s. The Astros hold a $15 million option for 2011, and given their financial situation they might decline it. At that point Berkman could sign else where — and he’s already said that he’d probably depart Houston in that case — but that’s not a certainty. Berkman has said that he could retire if he feels he’s not as productive as he wants to be. Retirement after the 2010 or 2011 seasons would almost certainly kill his Hall chances. If he remains healthy for, say, four more seasons, though, maybe he can make a case.

At 313 career home runs, it’s a long shot for Berkman to hit the 500 mark over the next four seasons. He’d have to average 47 per season, a mark he has never attained. At his current 162-game average, 34, he’d have to play five and a half more seasons — and that doesn’t even factor in declining skills. It could realistically take him six or seven more seasons to hit that mark, and it doesn’t sound like Berkman would be up for that. We can also rule out the 3,000 hit club, as it took him 11 seasons to get even halfway there. In other words, even if he plays through 2013 he’s going to be a tough sell to the HOF voters.

Then again, there are players in the Hall with far lesser numbers. Take Puckett for instance. He posted a career 124 OPS+ and had just 2,304 its and 207 home runs. If Berkman plays another four seasons he’ll come close to Puckett’s hit total, while beating him in just about every other offensive category. Puckett’s main advantage, of course, was that he played center field in 1,432 of his 1,729 career games. Even with the positional adjustment, though, Berkman figures to surpass Puckett in WAR this season, Berkman’s 12th, the same number of seasons Puckett played.

Chances are that once he hangs up his cleats, we’ll see articles about Berkman similar to the ones we saw about Garciaparra and Giles. Like the other two, he ranks among the best players of his time, but he falls short in terms of voter criteria. If he posts four more seasons of 5 WAR ball, he’ll be up at the level of Ozzie Smith, Tim Raines, and Roberto Alomar. Will the voters a decade from now recognize that? If they do perhaps Berkman has a case. Otherwise, it appears he’ll finish just outside the threshold.