This offseason, the Rays had needs at first base and designated hitter, and after the relatively high-priced signings of Carlos Pena and Luke Scott did not work out well last season, they would love to find a more cost-effective option but most importantly a player who can help give them the offensive production they need for another postseason run. One player that was just connected to the Rays is free agent first baseman Lance Berkman. Is he the type of player the Rays are looking for?
Berkman told Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle that four teams have kicked the tires on him so far: his hometown Astros, the Red Sox, the Phillies, and the Rays. Berkman, who will play next season at age 37, appeared in just 37 games for the Cardinals this season, posting a .259/.381/.444 line (126+) when he was healthy but going on the DL three different times for his right knee according to Baseball Prospectus, including meniscus surgery in May, and he also missed time with a left calf strain. But just two years ago, Berkman had a tremendous season, posting a .301/.412/.547 line (a career-high 164 OPS+) with 23 doubles, 31 homers, 94 RBI, and 93 strikeouts against 92 walks in 145 games and 587 plate appearances. Berkman made 12 million dollars in 2012 after making 8 million dollars in 2011. His value is not that high after an injury-riddled season, but he certainly won’t be make chump change next season.
Looking at the teams that Berkman mentioned, the Astros particularly stand out as Berkman starred for Houston from 1999 to 2010, but from a baseball standpoint, the Rays clearly have a leg up. The Astros and even the Red Sox appear to be going nowhere next season. The Phillies are retooling for a playoff run, but they also have Ryan Howard at first base, with Howard finally set to be fully healthy for the first time in two years. Berkman is not about to go out to right field again and it’s clear that a first base/designated hitter role with an American League team would be best for him to keep him healthy. The Rays are the only team among those four with the ability to contend next season and offer Berkman regular at-bats. We’ll have to see the way the rest of the Rays’ offseason plays out, but the Rays could definitely make Berkman their regular DH and give him time at first base as well if that’s his preference.
What should the Rays offer Berkman? They gave Pena 7.25 million dollars this season and Scott 5 million dollars. With Berkman, like fellow ex-Astro Scott, coming off a season derailed by injuries, he would be a fit for a Scott-type contract. Berkman told Duarte that he would prefer a two-year deal. But will Berkman receive such a deal? Even if Berkman did, would he rather take a 1-year deal to play as a regular on a potential playoff team in the Rays or a 2-year deal in Boston or Houston where he would probably have a great time but never approach the postseason? Everyone loves the stability provided by multi-year deals, but with Berkman being the competitor he is, he would have to consider taking the Rays’ offer. The Rays aren’t going to go crazy in their pursuit of Berkman this offseason. But if he’s willing to come along on a 1-year, 5 million dollar contract, they would be glad to welcome him into the fold and write him down as a key offensive contributor for them next season.