Lance Berkman was the St. Louis Cardinals’ highest-priced offensive acquisition for 2011, signing for $8 million on a one-year contract to man right field. He is effectively replacing Ryan Ludwick, sent to San Diego in trade at the 2010 deadline.
Without recapping Berkman’s entire 12 seasons, he had been a feared hitter for many years, but has recently been in a late-career decline. Last season, he had a strong spring training (.364/.462/.636 – BA/OBP/SLG) but soon faltered.
The same day Ludwick was dealt, July 31, so was Berkman. The latter was traded away from his only home as a major leaguer, Houston, to the New York Yankees. After Berkman’s struggles worsened following the trade, neither club wanted the now 35-year-old back in 2011.
Note that in recent years, the switch-hitter has been demonstrating significantly greater problems batting right-handed against left-handed pitching (.517 OPS in 2010). Some had been calling for Berkman to abandon switch-hitting as far back as 2006.
Over the last week or so of 2011 spring training, Berkman has been in a normal defense and hitting routine, playing in right field and hitting from both sides of the plate, but that was not the case much of camp.
Early on, Berkman experienced left (throwing) elbow issues and a left calf strain. For that reason, he batted left-handed and was the Cardinals designated hitter for much of the spring. In fact, to protect his elbow, he even hit from the left side three times against left-handed pitchers in the March 16 game against Detroit.
Reviewing the bidding, Berkman has been hitting the majority of the time this spring from his left, better side, but is still showing almost no life, with no drive on the ball. While the prevalent concern initially was about his readiness to return to everyday play in the outfield, it is Berkman’s bat that must now be considered the greater worry.
His overall spring line is .200/.216/.280, reflecting only two extra-base hits and just one walk in 51 plate appearances. His home run occurred in his first game of the spring, back on February 28. Berkman drew his one and only Florida walk on March 24, the same day he collected his only double.
Veterans supposedly don’t need the entire spring training period to get prepared, but with the season opener on Thursday, Berkman is running out of time to prove he is ready. Is he injured or worse?