Lance Berkman came out nowhere last year. 35 years old and coming off a career-low in home runs, he looked like toast. When the Cardinals signed the player some call “Fat Elvis” to play in the outfield for the first time since 2007, it seemed like a bust. Some of us even said so.
But then the magic happened. Could lightning hit twice? Could this happen again?
Let’s first define what happened. Berkman was a 35-year-old first-baseman-slash-corner-outfielder that hit 30+ home runs in the 2000s. There have been 34 seasons like his since 2000. Obviously, not all of those players were coming off seasons as terrible as Berkman’s 2010. No reason to lump Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez into this list. Let’s keep in mind that Berkman hit 14 home runs the year before.
Jeromy Burnitz was 35 in 2004, when he hit 37 home runs for the Rockies. He hit 31 the year before, so he doesn’t fit so well, but he also hit .204 with poor power (for him) after a mid-season 2003 trade to the Dodgers. Moises Alou was 37 when he hit 39 home runs in Chicago, a year after hitting 22 for the same team, but he had some serious power oscillations his whole career. After a four-year power decline that seemed to be pointing towards the end of his career, Edgar Martinez hit 37 home runs at 37 years old in 2000. These situations don’t seem as stark as Berkman.
Carlos Delgado was 36 the year he hit 38 home runs for the Mets — a year after he put up the worst ISO of his career. 37-year-old Jason Giambi hit 32 home runs a year after he hit 14 for the same Yankees squad. Raul Ibanez signed a deal with the Phillies and hit a career-high 34 home runs at 37 years old. Ken Griffey Jr hit 35 home runs at age 35, a year after hitting 20 in limited time for the Reds. He didn’t hit 30 home runs, but Gary Sheffield hit 25 home runs for the Tigers at age 39, a year after hitting six home runs in 166 PAS with the Yankees. Getting closer.
These are all interesting, but the best fit might be Jim Thome. The big fella suffered through his age-35 season with the Phillies, hitting .207 with 7 home runs, before a move to the White Sox resulted in 42 home runs and a late-career renaissance.
What can we learn from these names?
One, it’s probably not a great idea to count on more great years after the late-career bloom. Sheffield was done, like done done, the next year. Alou’s high in home runs after his 39-homer season was 22. Burnitz – 24. Martinez played a while longer, but only manged to hit 24 in his best season after his monster year. Giambi never hit more than 13 again. Delgado hit four more home runs, period.
Thome’s the outlier, but he had an assist — the DH position. Berkman himself could probably use the DH as a fallback in the future. He hasn’t been the picture of health. But he doesn’t get that boost.
Two, you can’t count an old slugger completely out until he’s out of the game. Some of these guys looked done — Sheffield, Giambi, Delgado and Thome, in particular, were probably late-round draft picks in their years, if they were drafted at all. If an older gentleman slugger percolates early next season, pay attention. The power outburst could last for one, last glorious season.
Who’s out there that fits the bill?
Let’s look at free agents first. Some of the players above benefited from a change of scenery (Burnitz, Ibanez and Thome, I’m looking at you). If Pat Burrell hadn’t just acknowledged that his career was likely over — and if he hadn’t shown that he wasn’t a great DH either — he might be a candidate. Hideki Matsui will turn 38 next year, and wasn’t ever a great power hitter, but he could hit more than 12 home runs next year if someone gives him a chance. J.D. Drew only managed 286 PAs and four home runs last season, and wasn’t your traditional power hitter, but at 36 he’s the spring chicken of this group. He might be a platoon outfielder depending on where he ends up, but he could be a deep league boon next year.
But you know there’s one guy that might fit the bill. He had a couple injuries, suffered a power outage in his late thirties, and is looking for a job this offseason. Vladimir Guerrero is going to be 37. If he signs with the right team, he could have a second late-career bounce-back season. Could he be the next Berkman?
Among the non-free-agents, there are a couple names. Could Carlos Lee find the fountain of youth? It’s happened for Astro first basemen before. Alfonso Soriano did hit 26 last season, but he’s turning 36 soon and 30+ home runs would seem like a late-season bloom for him. Maybe a trade will produce a Berkman-esque season. Travis Hafner only managed 13 home runs, and will turn 35 next season, but he’s been injury-riddled for so many years. He could hit 30.
It seems crazy, but so does Lance Berkman’s 2011 season.