The Houston Astros will be faced with a decision regarding Lance Berkman's future at some point this year. The club holds a $15MM 2011 option for Berkman, and will have to figure out whether they want to retain their switch-hitting slugger or pay him a $2MM buyout.
Berkman and teammate Roy Oswalt have represented the faces of the franchise since the days of Bagwell and Biggio, and the Astros have long resisted entering rebuilding mode. After their payroll exceeded $100MM in 2009, the club spent another $30MM on Major League free agent contracts this winter. Declining Berkman's option could indicate a commitment to the rebuilding process, and may be the prudent financial move as well. Last season, the 34-year-old battled injuries and posted career lows in batting average and slugging percentage, hitting .274/.399/.509.
Berkman, for his part, has talked about seeing "what else is out there" if Houston declines his option. If he were to become a free agent next offseason, Berkman would be an interesting case. 2011's first base class is significantly less enticing than 2012's, which could potentially include Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, and Ryan Howard. Next winter, Berkman's competition in free agency would likely be players such as Derrek Lee, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, and Adam LaRoche. Considering the knee problems Berkman has already experienced this spring, it's plausible that he could follow the career trajectory of someone like Vladimir Guerrero, a still-dangerous hitter whose age and health questions have diminished his value.
A plethora of scenarios could play out before Opening Day 2011. Do you see the Astros declining Berkman's option, or perhaps even trying to trade him this season, should they fall out of contention? If Berkman enjoys a relatively healthy 2010 campaign, what sort of contract might he earn next winter, on the verge of turning 35?