Two Big Bats

Two big bats landed in the NL central this December. One, Lance Berkman, returns to the division and will don a once rival St. Louis Cardinal’s jersey. The other, Carlos Pena, makes his first appearance in the National League and joins a different Cardinal rival, the Chicago Cubs.

Each of the players received more money by accepting one-year deals with their respective clubs. Pena signed for 1 year at $10M and Berkman signed on for 1 year at $8M. With the Cards-Cubs rivalry and the similarity in the contracts let’s take a look at each addition and see the value they may bring to their teams as they battle for the same division crown.

Carlos Pena, 32, once a top ten draft pick, struggled to find his way early in his career. With stops in Texas, Detroit, Boston, and other places, Pena finally made his mark in Tampa with the Rays. In 2007, at age 29, Pena had his career year belting 46 home runs and driving in 121, all while batting .282. From 2007-2009 Pena was one of the more valuable first basemen in the league. Last year, Pena plummeted in production squeaking out a mere .196 AVG. His power was still evident in his 28 home runs, but even with that his ISO (SLG-AVG) dipped from .310 down to .211. Pena did suffer from a little more bad luck on balls hit into play (.222 BABIP) and from hitting more ground balls in general (1.11 GB/FB). Some of that should rebound this next season as he moves to a more hitter-friendly field- according to StatCorner, Tropicana Field depresses HR production by 11 percent compared to a neutral park, while Wrigley increases it by 19 percent. Offensively, Pena should be able to rebound. While his peak performance days are most likely behind him, he could near his career line .241/.351/.490.

Lance Berkman, enjoyed a consistent career as a Houston Astro. Since 1999, Houston’s mainstay, produced at a clip of .296/.409/.545. From 2000 to 2009, he hit 20+ home runs while playing both the outfield and first base. As a Cardinal, Berkman will be patrolling the outfield, either left or right, but also has some experience in center. However, he has not played outfield since 2007. The good news is that Cardinal’s outfielders face fewer fly balls than most teams as they are fueled by a ground ball pitching staff. In any regard, the front office still sees enough left in the 34 year-old’s tank to march him out to the outfield for 2011.

Like Pena, Berkman is coming off a down season. His .248/14/58 line was his career worst since becoming a regular. Some of that production decline came because of Berkman missing the first two weeks of the season after knee surgery; some of it also comes from the switch hitter’s inability to hit verses lefty pitching. From 2008 to 2010, his average while batting right against lefty pitching has slid from .277, to .230, to. 171. As a switch hitter, Berkman will probably face lefties less as LaRussa will find ways to move his bat down in the order against a left-handed starter or pinch hit for him against a left handed pitcher late. Along, with the natural production decline that comes with age and eliminating some left-handed pitching match-ups, Berkman should be able to rest some where just shy of his 2009 line of .274, .399, .509.

When one compares the two, Pena fills a big hole for the Cubs at first base and carries more offensive weight on his shoulders, as Chicago will be counting on his production to supplant Derrek Lee. Pena still has good plate discipline and is excellent at taking the walk. His defense at first is not as good as the three-time gold-glove winner Lee but Pena did garner a gold glove of his own in 2008. At $2M more per year, with the greater need the Cubs had, the difference in salary might be a bit more justifiable for the Cubs.

At $2M less a year and a track record that has screamed nothing but consistent production, the Cardinals have to be happy with what they have received in Berkman. As the third big bat in the line-up (depending on what Rasmus can produce) he should be able to “earn” what the Cardinals will pay him.

With the Cubs needs, and what they were willing to pay, one wonders why they did not make a run at Berkman. Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, or even an attempt to bring back D. Lee would have also made some sense. However, when you run down the list of sizeable long term contracts in Chicago (Soriano, Zambrano, Ramirez), the long-term deal may have been exactly what the team was looking to stay away from, especially in a declining player. Perhaps the organization will slide Ramirez over to first as the break in prospect Josh Vitters at the hot corner in 2012.

Obviously, the proverbial proof will be in the pudding. If both aging sluggers remain healthy and produce they will no doubt have an impact on the division race and in perhaps a big at-bat or two in the timeless Cards/Cubs rivalry.

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