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2012 key player: Lance Berkman

Oh what a difference a year makes.

Last spring we worried if new St Louis Cardinals signee Lance Berkman had anything left in his offensive tank. Turned out, did he ever.  By OPS+ he enjoyed the best season of his career.  By slash line (.301./.412/.547) it was a top-five career season and his best effort since 2008.  Then he went out and, for an encore, hit .423/.516/.577 against the Rangers.  He was the 2011 NL Comeback Player of the Year, and deservedly so.

Last spring we worried how Berkman would do playing the OF full-time for the first time in 4 years.  He was not as bad as we feared, but he wasn’t great either. Opponents took an extra base on a ball hit to right slightly more than half the time when presented with the opportunity.  That ranked him 20th among right fielders.  He was OK on balls hit to shallow right, but not too good on medium flies and slightly worse on deep balls.    Berkman was ranked 31st overall among RF’s by Dewan Plus/Minus in 2011.

This spring we wonder if Berkman can repeat last year’s performance at the plate.  It is a near certainty he will not bottom out like he did in 2010.  Berkman’s hitting last season, while impressive given the context, was virtually dead on his career averages (.296/.409/.545).  Plus, he is no longer being asked to patrol the outfield.  Albert Pujols‘ departure for the sand, sun, and cash of Orange County California ceded first base to Berkman.  He will be a lot less physically taxed this year in the field than he was last year.  And, his contribution to the overall team defense will rise.  Throughout his career Lance has been at least an average defensive 1B, and on occasion (2006, 2008) a top 5 defender (again, according to Plus/Minus).  He is not as good a defender as Pujols, but he’s no Freddie Freeman either.

Berkman will hit fourth in the new order. Last season he was supporting cast to Pujols and Matt Holliday, and he performed above expectations.  This year the stakes have risen, and he is expected to be a vital cog in the Cardinal offense.  He is also expected to be a plus defender at first base.  Oh, what a difference a year makes.

Mike Metzger is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He blogs about the Padres.  Follow him on Twitter.

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