Though it can never be proven, I suspect the absence of Lance Berkman may have been the single biggest blow absorbed by the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals – even greater than the comparable loss of Chris Carpenter. Berkman missing all but 32 games caused an impact on the payroll, the results on the field and in the clubhouse.
In September 2011, when the Cardinals re-signed Berkman to his second consecutive one-year contract, my first reaction was that the move was a hedge against the offense that could be lost by the then-potential departure of free agent-to-be Albert Pujols.
My next thought was that the organization may have been rewarding Berkman for a tremendous 2011 that would culminate in he and his teammates winning the World Series. Berkman was a National League all-star, and following the season, he was deservedly named NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Only later when manager Tony La Russa and Pujols joined the ranks of ex-Cardinals did I fully consider the depth of a potential leadership void – one which a healthy and productive Berkman seemed ideal to help fill.
One could argue whether it should have been an expectation or merely a hope that the oft-injured 36-year-old would replicate his 2011 offensive results somehow. Either way, he was given an increase in salary from $8 million in 2011 to $12 million in 2012.
One line of thinking was that moving from the outfield in 2011 back to first base in 2012 would help Berkman remain healthier. That was proven to not be the case. He not only had three long stints on the disabled list, he left the club several times for surgery and recovery.
Berkman played in just seven games in April before injuring a calf muscle and hitting the DL. He returned in May, appearing in just six games this time, before hurting his right knee again.
Though he pushed for his mid-July activation, Berkman’s knee was still not right. He made just nine starts and a half-dozen pinch-hitting appearances before being shut down again on August 2.
The switch-hitter was activated when rosters expanded on September 1, but after just three games, his ongoing knee problems led to yet another surgery.
After hitting 31 home runs in 2011, he finished with just two in 2012. Berkman made 97 plate appearances in 32 games and batted .259. He was unable to participate in the post-season.
The Cardinals gave Berkman a courtesy at-bat in their final regular-season game on October 3. That may or may not have concluded his long and successful career, but it certainly ended his time with St. Louis, as the club did not invite him back for 2013.