Lance Berkman of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after being hit by a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
With Albert Pujols leaving, the Cardinals re-signed Lance Berkman to take over at first base. It cost them $12 million, and Berkman's season-ending numbers included 7 RBI. Was there a better way?
This was supposed to be a good year for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Coming off an improbable World's Championship, the Cardinals were expected to compete for another, even after losing their best player to free agency. And they are competing, after a fashion, for another championship. The National League Central is lost to them, but the new, second Wild Card postseason berth is not. If the season ended at this moment, the Cardinals would travel to Atlanta for the one-game Wild Card playoff. And from there ... well, who knows?
So it's not been a wildly successful season, but it might yet become one. And all while spending $12 million on Lance Berkman, who has driven in the grand total of seven runs all season and won't drive in any more, because his season is over.
That's a lot of money, $12 million. Last week, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak admitted as much during a pre-game meeting with a group of bloggers:
Mozeliak admitted it "has been a frustrating year from a baseball standpoint" for the Cardinals. He said the Cardinals knew there was a risk in counting on aging players such as pitcher Chris Carpenter, first baseman Lance Berkman and shortstop Rafael Furcal and that the breakdowns by those players because of injuries have been "an Achilles heel."
With Berkman, for example, Mozeliak said, "Last year we rolled the dice and won the lottery. This year we lost all our money. That’s the cost of this game."
That's true. Every contract is a gamble with attendant risks, and you're going to lose some of those gambles. The difference between a successful organization and an unsuccessful organization really isn't large, when it comes to success rate. But the Cardinals have been on the plus side of that equation for quite a long time.
In this particular case, though, did they have to roll the dice?
In one sense, the question might seem moot. Even without Berkman for most of the season, Cardinals first basemen rank second in the league with 93 RBI, fourth in OPS. But that leads to an obvious question ... If the Cardinals are getting solid production from their first basemen at hand, why invest $12 million in Lance Berkman in the first place?
Here are the Cardinals who have gotten the most action at first base, with their games at the position and their OPS+'s (overall):
The signing of Carlos Beltran, following the re-signing of Lance Berkman last
winter September, left Allen Craig without an every-day job, but that was by design; Craig was slated to miss the first month or two of the season while recovering from knee surgery. If not for that, the Cardinals might have eschewed Beltrán.
In Craig's absence, when Berkman was gimpy in the spring the Cardinals turned to Carpenter, who did quite well until the last week of May ... when he suffered a strained oblique that sent him to the Disabled List for a month. Then it was Adams' turn, but he didn't fare nearly as well, and Craig finally took over, generally serving as the Cardinals' first basemen except on those rare occasions when Berkman was able to play. And Craig's been really good, just as Carpenter was before him.
So, even with all the injuries and Adams' ineffectiveness, it's worked out.
Where might that $12 million have been better spent? Well, the Cardinals have had only two notable weak spots this season: second base, and middle-relief pitching. Their second basemen -- mostly Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, and Tyler Greene -- rank 14th in the National League in OPS. Neither Descalso nor Greene has hit, and Greene got exiled to Houston last month. Still, it seemed a reasonable plan.
Which leaves the bullpen. The Cardinals' relievers haven't, as a group, been bad. But whereas last season they finished with a 3.73 ERA, this season it's been 4.13. Not a huge difference. But once you get past closer Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs, the bullpen's been merely adequate this season. With one of the league's better bullpens, the Cardinals would be sitting pretty right now.
Would $12 million have bought one of the league's better bullpens, though? Probably not. Generally speaking, "bullpen" isn't a problem you solve by throwing a bunch of money at it. The enterprise is rife with capriciousness, and we've all seen great bullpens built on a shoestring by canny management.
Last season, Allen Craig established himself as an outstanding hitter. But his durability was a question. Also last season, Matt Adams established himself as an outstanding Double-A hitter, Matt Carpenter a good Triple-A hitter. An organization with less money to spend would have been well-advised to rely on the plentiful first-base talent at hand. But the Cardinals had money to spend, and presumably hoped to ameliorate the public-relations hit of losing Albert Pujols by retaining Lance Berkman, who'd been healthy throughout 2011.
It wasn't a low-risk move, or a high-risk move. It was a medium-risk move, and probably worth making for this franchise at that time. Still, I'll bet John Mozeliak would love to have that $12 million to play around with.