Lance Berkman to the Yankees
After weeks of having to trot out Colin Curtis, Ramiro Pena and Kevin Russo as pinch hitters -- or worse, all-too-frequent starters -- the New York Yankees addressed some of the issues with their offensive depth, putting a deal in place to acquire Lance Berkman from the Houston Astros. The move shores up the designated-hitter spot and adds another bat, with the Yankees having already traded for Austin Kearns from the Cleveland Indians to bolster their bench.
Berkman, now four years removed from a 45-homer, 136-RBI, 1.041-OPS campaign, is essentially the kind of player the Yankees had seemingly attempted to avoid in recent years, a mid-30s, past-his-prime slugger whose most obvious roster fit is at DH. Don't read too much into his 2.7 number at first base in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating, or Mark Teixeira's minus-3.7 there in the category; Teixeira is widely regarded a significantly more skilled defender. Teixeira's appearances at DH with Berkman at first will only occur when Teixeira requires a "half-day" off. Berkman is also well beyond the point of being able to man the outfield, and the acquisition of Kearns underscores the Yankees' recognition of that fact.
That leaves Berkman to gobble up the bulk of his at-bats at DH, and means he'll have to adjust to no longer playing both facets of the game. That can present problems for some -- Jason Giambi during his early Yankees days being a notable example -- but Berkman did succeed in brief stints in the role during interleague play from 2005 to 2008, managing .378/.451/.533 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates in 12 games.
In the past two seasons during interleague play, however, Berkman was only a .200/.319/.432 hitter in 28 games, and remember that he's moving to a pitching-rich division loaded with quality arms. Looking further, he's a .262/.389/.496 hitter in 323 career games in the American League East's five ballparks, his OPS in those parks 46 points lower than his overall lifetime number.
A notable weakness of Berkman's: Never a great hitter from the right side (.262/.366/.415 career rates), the veteran is batting only .188/.278/.281 in 72 plate appearances as a right-hander, hinting a platoon might be his best arrangement. Perhaps that's what Kearns, a .261/.383/.416 career hitter versus lefties but whose lifetime OPS is only 28 points higher versus righties, is here for, but it's more likely the Yankees will continue using Jorge Posada as their DH against southpaws, keeping Francisco Cervelli behind the plate.
Fantasy owners might also assume that Yankee Stadium, with its short porch in right field, would mean an instant boost in power potential for Berkman, but that's another possible pitfall for those aiming to open the FAAB wallet for his services. Per Inside Edge, as a left-handed hitter he's actually more apt to hit the ball to left field (25.4 percent of his balls in play) than right (16.9 percent), and per Hittrackeronline.com, only 10 of his 38 home runs overall between this and last season have been hit to either right or right-center field. Berkman's fly ball percentage is also 36.0 this year, short of the league average. It's true that moving from Minute Maid Park to Yankee Stadium means the benefit of a stronger home-run park -- discussed in my midseason review of ballpark factors -- but Yankee Stadium is almost equally balanced between lefties and righties in the power department, and it might amount to only a minimal benefit for Berkman.
Sum those up, of course, and Berkman still shapes up as an above-average major league hitter, albeit perhaps only average among fantasy first basemen, a notoriously deep position. Runs/RBI potential is where he benefits, but there are pitfalls to the move, too. The bottom line: If you're buying Berkman because of name value, you'll wind up disappointed. If you accept that what he has been this year is what he'll remain, you'll probably be pleased with the acquisition.
Kearns provides the Yankees a valuable reserve at all three outfield positions, and while he'll probably steal some at-bats from Berkman versus lefties, he might do the same to Curtis Granderson, a .211/.267/.336 career hitter against southpaws (.214/.252/.286 this year). Kearns won't play regularly, as he had with the Cleveland Indians, meaning his appeal drops to only the deepest AL-only formats. Granderson's owners might actually be happy with the impact on his batting average -- fewer quick outs against lefties -- but owners of Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher shouldn't sweat them losing significant playing time.
Neither of the prospects the Astros are reported to be acquiring, Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes, should catch a fantasy owner's eye. Melancon, a relief prospect, has regressed in terms of command with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, while Paredes is a speedy 21-year-old infielder in Class A ball. The Indians, meanwhile, will pick up either a player to be named later or future cash considerations.
"The biggest beneficiary of Berkman's departure from the Astros' lineup may be the well-traveled Brett Wallace, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays as a spin-off to the Roy Oswalt deal. Wallace is in Saturday's lineup, and is expected to be the everyday first baseman for the remainder of the season. The 2008 first-rounder (13th overall) has .304/.375/.487 career numbers and profiles as a future .300 hitter with 25-homer power, though unlike Berkman he's not adept at taking pitches. Wallace's so-so numbers for Triple-A Las Vegas in terms of contact rate (78.4 percent) and walk rate (6.4 percent) suggest a player who might need some time to adapt to big league pitching. He's well worth keeper-league consideration if available, however, and warrants a speculative pickup in redraft NL-only and some deeper mixed formats. If he starts the weekend hot, he might warrant a look in all formats.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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