2012 Preview: First Base

As I said in the Catcher preview last week, there are only three players expected to start Opening Day at the same place they started it last year. Lance Berkman is the other player who stays in the lineup but will find himself a new home at first base.

Originally signed before last season to a value rebuilding 1 year, $8 million contract with the Cardinals to play the outfield, Berkman re-signed with the Cards in September to the tune of $12 million. He quickly became their insurance policy against the potential of Albert Pujols vacating the position. Pujols took a $240 million offer from the Angels and didn’t look back. That leaves Berkman, affectionately referred to as “Big Puma,” with some mightly large cleats to fill.

Berkman, who will be 36 on Friday, had a phenomenal year in 2011. According to OPS+ it was his best year as he scored a 166 last year, beating out 2006’s 163 OPS+ campaign. Overall he had a line of .301/.412/.547 as he led the Cardinals in both on base percentage and slugging. He also added 31 home runs and 94 RBI for the Cardinals in a big rebound year.

There is some concern for Berkman going into 2012, however. Can he be as productive as he was last season? That seems to be the prevailing question. Berkman put up a season that was just as good as the best seasons of his career. Odds are that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Then, there was his power loss in the second half of the season where he only hit 7 home runs with 31 RBI after the All Star Break. Regardless, he still hit .315 with an OBP well above .400.

How his 36 year old body will hold up at first base is another question. He said in spring training last year that playing the outfield was easier on his surgically repaired knees. How will he handle 140-145 games of starting, sprinting, and stopping on virtually every ball hit?

The Cardinals will need Berkman to be good. I think to expect another near .300/30/100 year out of him is setting the bar a little too high. However, .290/20/100 is definitely within his wheelhouse and is more what I’m looking for out of him in 2012. If he can keep that OBP above .400, he will be an extreme offensive threat in the four-hole.

This will really signify a change for the Cardinals. Forgive the movie reference, but the premise behind Moneyball (watched it just the other night with my wife) was that you simply needed to get on base a lot to score a lot. The Cardinals are going to have to use that approach next season quite a bit. I wouldn’t call anyone on the roster a legitimate 30 home run threat. I don’t expect Berkman to do it again, and Holliday should get close, but he won’t get there. Home runs will be down with hits and walks the name of the game.

Behind Berkman things are interesting as well. For one, you have Allen Craig who will likely share a bulk of playing time with Berkman at first base to keep him rested. Craig, 27, posted a 2.9 WAR in 219 plate appearances in 2011. That is MVP quality work. He had surgery after the World Series to finish repairing the broken knee cap that he suffered during the season, but is looking like he might be ready for Opening Day.

Craig has shown himself to be one of the more exciting young Cardinals. He hit 11 home runs and had 40 RBI in 75 games last season. It’s unlikely that Craig will hit .315 again, however hitting near .300 is really not in question for him. Much like Matt Holliday, a player who I see as very similar, Craig doubles a lot. That’s good news. He can also play around the outfield positions and has seen time at third base and second base, though those latter two are unlikely homes for him. His versatility and his bat should make him a valuable piece as he fights for playing time. I expect him to hit .300/.350/.450 and on pace for about 20-25 home runs depending on his playing time.

In the minors, there has recently been so much love for 2011 Texas League Player of the Year Matt Adams, that you almost forget about Mark Hamilton.

Hamilton, 27, has struggled in St. Louis in 47 appearances over the last two seasons, hitting just .197. However the left-handed slugger hit well while getting regular playing time during Albert Pujols’ DL stint last year, looking like he was getting ready to turn it around right as Pujols returned and he was sent back to Memphis.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, he’s turning into the next Nick Stavinoha and his opportunities in St. Louis, and maybe even in Memphis, will likely be rare this next year. He played 69 games for the Redbirds last year, putting up a line of .345/.439/.472, but surprisingly just 2 home runs in a vast power drop off from the 18 he hit in just 3 more plate appearances in 2010.

There really isn’t a home for Hamilton on the St. Louis bench with Berkman starting and Allen Craig being the first substitute on the depth chart. In Memphis, he will likely get squeezed for playing time with Matt Adams. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Hamilton’s bat hasn’t played well in the major leagues yet, so his trade value drops. He might find himself put at DH or in a corner outfield spot this season to increase his value and odds of getting some playing time.

The other player I’ve talked about, Matt Adams, has put up huge numbers the last two years in Quad Cities and Springfield. At 23 years old, he has a couple more years to develop. He put up a line of .300/.357/.566 along with 32 home runs and 101 RBI in 115 games for Double-A Springfield this season. He’s become one of the Cardinals’ most talked about offensive prospects.

I’m looking forward to seeing Matt’s bat play out in Memphis, if he gets the opportunity this season. He seems to have survived the bump from Single-A to Double-A, one of the harder jumps in baseball, fairly well. The downside to Adams is that he doesn’t walk much, but the power seems very legitimate. He is already talked about as a potential first baseman of the future for the Cardinals, but has plenty more proving left to do.

I feel that this season will be Berkman’s final year in St. Louis. With Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday already under contract in the corner outfield spots in 2013, the Cardinals will need to find a place for Allen Craig’s bat and first base makes the most sense. Unfortunately Berkman is a short-term fix while Craig is more of a long-term solution for the next 4-5 years. Maybe even with Craig moving to right field if Matt Adams develops and is ready for first base going into 2014. There is much excitement behind Berkman on the depth chart at first base going forward.

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