The Rays are one of four teams, along with Boston, Philadelphia, and Houston that have expressed interest in free agent Lance Berkman, according to the Houston Chronicle. The 36-year-old described the level of interest as “tire-kicking mode.”
Berkman is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off major surgery that cost him most of the 2012 season, putting him in a similar spot to where Luke Scott was last winter. Berkman is a more accomplished hitter than Scott, with a longer track record of success. That said, he comes with larger injury concerns. He has had multiple surgeries on his right knee—including two last season limiting him to 32 games—and has also had work done on the left side. In addition to the medical concerns, Berkman appears to have a strong opinion about his monetary value as well as an open distaste for the designated hitter position.
Berkman owns a lifetime slash line of .296/.409/.544 in just over 7,500 plate appearances. And while he may not be the hitter he once was, he has compiled a .275/.394/.491 line since 2009 and continues to show tremendous patience in addition to above-average power. Although he is a switch-hitter by trade, he excels against right-handed pitching. This would put him on the strong side of a platoon if the Rays felt like resting him against his weaker side.
A healthy Berkman would solve a lot of the offensive issues that plagued the team last season; however, his age and injury status cannot be ignored. If the Rays are going to commit a significant portion of payroll to offense, they need to be sure of a certain return on that investment. And if you take Berkman’s word at face value, he is expecting to be compensated accordingly.
When asked about a return to the Astros as a designated hitter, Berkman said he would consider such a move if the money was right. Though he did not give a figure, he said, “Am I going to come back for a couple of million bucks, no,” before adding that he wants to get paid like a three-hole hitter if that is the role his new team has in mind. If that’s the case, then a Berkman-to-Tampa-Bay scenario seems unlikely. He has also expressed a desire for a two-year contract if possible, and recently re-affirmed his dislike for American League style of play; most notably the designated hitter even if the position helps extend his career.
The Rays are wise to do their homework on Berkman. Should his price drop in January, and he warm up to the idea of just hitting, then perhaps there can be something worked out. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen; although stranger things have happened.