For years, Lance Berkman was the centerpiece of an Houston Astros lineup that consistently battled with the Cardinals for supremacy in National League Central. Now, Berkman will try to help the Cardinals reclaim the Central division crown.
The Cardinals have seen their fare share of Berkman in the past. He's hit seven home runs with 17 RBIs in 28 career games at Busch Stadium, amounting to a .284 average.
After years as one of the most fears hitters in the National League, Berkman has shown signs of age in recent years. Last year, he batted .248 last season in time split between the Astros and the New York Yankees. He hit 14 home runs and had 58 RBI in just 122 games.
Sources say that the Cardinals plan to play Berkman in left field, while moving All-Star Matt Holliday to right.
"We are extremely excited to have added Lance to our ballclub," general manager John Mozeliak said in a press release. "He's an impact player who not only helps solidify our everyday lineup, but he also brings a wealth of experience to our team."
Although Mozeliak placed the chances of signing Berkman at 10 percent just last week, the Cardinals were able to strike a deal based on Berkman's desire to build on the long Cardinal legacy.
"He's a winning player, and he brings tremendous leadership and respect to the clubhouse," Mozeliak said. "I think he has a great appreciation for the sport of baseball and the history of it. He looks at the St. Louis Cardinals as a premier place to play. It's always nice to have people who have great admiration for the history of the organization."
Berkman has played both first base and the outfield before. He has 871 career outfield starts and 717 at first base but has played mostly first in recent years.
However, first base is home to three-time MVP Albert Pujols, who won't be moving anytime soon.
The last time Lance had a full season in the outfield was 2004, when he played 160 games at the corner outfield spots. It remains to be seen if, or rather how much, his defense has diminished since.
"Obviously, it's a question," Mozeliak said. "But he looked to be in great shape. He lost some weight and is running real well. So we have a high level of confidence in him."
However, Berkman has remained adamant that he can still play the outfield.
"You look at his year last year, and he hurt his knee in Spring Training and just never got going," Mozeliak said. "He feels he just never got 100 percent. He's used this offseason to energize himself and heal."
By signing Berkman, a switch-hitter the Cardinals have added a powerful bat to complement a lineup already stocked with right-handers Pujols and Holliday.
Berkman was strongly pursued by the Oakland A's, and the Cardinals were a surprise destination. Berkman said that he preferred not to spend another season in the American League, playing mostly DH. He also heard offers from the Pirates, Blue Jays, Cubs and Rockies, but the Cardinals' legacy and chance to win now were deciding factors for the 34-year old.
St. Louis seemed ready to head into 2011 with youngsters Jon Jay and Allen Craig platooning in right. Now, it seems, Craig and Jay will be reserved to the bench.
It's clear that Berkman is a serious upgrade for the Cardinals offense. Among active players, he ranks fourth in on-base percentage, and 10th in slugging percentage. He holds a career batting percentage of .296 with 327 homers and 1,099 RBI, almost all with Houston.
If Berkman, who holds the National League record for single-season RBIs by a switch-hitter, as well as six seasons with 100 or more RBIs and eight with 25 or more home runs, can even return to a shade of his former self, the Cardinals should have a very formidable lineup in 2011.
"This took two parties [to complete]," Mozeliak said. "I think he had greater opportunities out there, financially, and I think he felt that this was just a place he wanted to play. Based on his desire to be here, that's when we started to realize we had a chance to get this deal done."
It was the second deal the Cardinals got done in under a week to improve what seemed like a punchless lineup at times last season. Earlier this week, the Cardinals added middle infielder Ryan Theriot, an above-average bat, who spent most of his career with the Cubs.
After acquiring another former rival in Berkman, says Mozeliak, the Cardinals are "pretty much a set club", but they will continue to explore trade options with shortstop Brendan Ryan, who lost his starting job to Theriot, but may hold value with a team looking for a strong defensive shortstop.