Most eyes are on Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder as it pertains to the upcoming class of free-agent first basemen, and rightly so. However, Pujols' teammate Lance Berkman, who signed a one-year, $8MM deal with the Redbirds in the offseason, bears watching, too.
Through his first two months in St. Louis, Berkman has largely regained the stroke that made him one of baseball's best and most consistent sluggers during the first decade of his career. His season line stood at .329/.444/.599 entering Sunday's game against the Cubs, which is vastly better than the .248/.368/.413 he posted during an injury-marred 2010 that he split between the Astros and Yankees.
Some regression is to be expected this season considering Berkman's career line of .297/.410/.547, but clearly a steep decline is not underway as 2010 may have indicated. However, 2012 will Berkman's age-36 season, and although he's playing the outfield now with St. Louis, he's best suited for first base or perhaps even DH, a role he filled during his time with the Yanks. As it is, he's been getting fairly regular rest as he works around various nagging ailments.
So, what does this mean for his Berkman's prospects on the free-agent market? Of course, a lot could happen between now and then, but barring injury, I think the Big Puma will be looking at a deal comparable to the one Aubrey Huff signed with the Giants last offseason: two years, $22MM, and perhaps some kind of option. Berkman has a more distinguished career than Huff, of course, but he is older and has had injury concerns the past couple years. As well, Berkman will be viewed as third-best free-agent first baseman after Pujols and Fielder. Carlos Pena, who is younger but not as good of a hitter as Berkman, will draw interest too.
With a lot of variables at play here – such as the Cards' dealings with Pujols, Berkman's health and his red-hot start – it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.