He’s not dead yet! Lance Berkman is returning to Texas, where he spent his first 11 1/2 seasons with the Astros. Yesterday, it was reported that manager Ron Washington plans to bat Berkman third in the lineup, which would replace Josh Hamilton’s spot in the order. So we now have a soon to be 37-year old hitting third in a strong lineup and playing half his games in a top hitter’s park. I don’t know about you, but I can guarantee you that it is going to be difficult to resist the urge to draft him possibly one last time in my fantasy league. Whether that would be a smart move though is the question of the day.
Berkman is a switch hitter and has performed significantly better against right-handers throughout his career. He sports a .421 wOBA against that group versus a less impressive .341 mark against southpaws. And although he did manage to post a respectable .354 wOBA against lefties in 2011, he was terrible in 2010 and pretty weak in 2009. Given his injury history, it would be fair to assume that Berkman will get regular rest and that he will probably receive it on days when the Rangers face a left-handed starter. So let’s take a look at the specific park factors for Rangers Ballpark last year for left-handed hitters. Although he only spent one full season there, let’s compare it to Busch Stadium anyway.
Busch Stadium’s perception as a pitcher’s park is due to its effects on right-handed hitters. It’s much tougher on them, but plays relatively neutral for left-handers. The biggest difference we notice is the home run factors. True to its reputation, that Texas heat and whatever other factors are at play, allow balls to fly out of Rangers Ballpark. This should help offset any age and injury-related decline Berkman might experience to his power skills.
Obviously, and alluded to already, the biggest concern with Berkman is his health. How long will he actually stay on the field to contribute to fantasy teams? He was limited to just 81 at-bats last year due to right knee problems that required surgery and in previous seasons had issues with his left knee, calf and ankle. The man hasn’t had 500 at-bats since the 2008 season.
The good news is that he seems to be pretty immune to declining skills. Though he looked like he was on the road to being finished in 2010, he came roaring back in 2011 to tell us convincingly that he was not done yet. So even without the favorable park switch, it appears that he could still seriously help fantasy teams while actually on the field. And unlike some other injury risks, Berkman does have serious upside, especially in that park, lineup and in that spot in the batting order.
Unfortunately, given his injury risk, he might be a much better risk to take in shallower leagues. In those formats, the replacement pool is filled with decent players, so you play Berkman until his legs fall off, and then simply go fishing for someone who might still be able to hit you 15-20 home runs over a full season. In a deeper league however, you’re going to be debating between backup corner infielders as a replacement, so you’re going to feel the sting of an injury a heck of a lot more.