30 Questions: Houston Astros
Following news of his recent knee surgery, is Lance Berkman still a viable fantasy first baseman?
Of course he's still viable. After all, Lance Berkman's timetable for recovery is two to four weeks -- weeks that, by the way, begin right now, during the middle part of spring training -- and there are 26 weeks in the fantasy season.
However, one thing Berkman's surgery does is ensure he'll no longer tempt people to pick him as a top-10 fantasy first baseman -- and maybe that's a good thing.
Berkman had his fourth career knee surgery Saturday, cleaning out debris in his left knee that resulted from a contusion he suffered during an early spring workout. He first had minor surgery on his left knee in 1999, and he had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee following the 2004 season and another operation on his right knee in January 2006 to clean out scar tissue.
Doesn't sound like the healthiest player, does he? Toss in Berkman's disabled-list stint due to a Grade 2 strain of his calf last summer and his advancing age (he's now 34), and there are plenty of reasons to be worried.
Surprisingly enough, Berkman has been routinely drafted as a top-100 player overall (ADP 87.4), despite the fact that he placed just 138th on last year's Player Rater. His prospective fantasy owners might have been convinced he'd bounce back before his surgery, but why should they now?
Consider that the last time Berkman's start to a season was delayed due to his ongoing recovery from knee surgery, in 2005, he missed one month's action, then needed more than a month to get back to his usual levels of production. Through 38 games of that season, he was a .241 hitter with three home runs and 15 RBIs. He did finish that year with .313-21-67 stats plus a 1.028 OPS in his final 94 games, numbers much more in line with his career averages.
Five years, however, can make a huge difference in a player's rehabilitation process, especially when you're talking about a past-prime age of 34, versus an in-his-prime age of 29. The healing process is that much tougher, and the chances of a setback greater, the older a player gets.
To say that Berkman might need longer than four weeks to return to the playing field, not to mention be at high risk for another visit to the disabled list, is fair. If you're looking for a projected number of games played, his 136 from last season might actually be on the high side of his scale.
Berkman's performance when healthy last season also regressed, especially his performance versus left-handers. A switch-hitter, Berkman managed only .231/.293/.418 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers from the right side of the plate in 2009, resulting in his worst right-handed OPS (.711) in any full big league season. That alone doesn't condemn him in the talent department, but it's a trend that bears watching, being that it has been a relative weakness for his entire career and seemed most noticeable last season. It might portend a downslope of his career that extends the next couple of years and deepens each passing season.
Berkman has hardly reached the end of his career downslope, though, not by a long shot. When healthy last season he still maintained walk (17.2 percent of his plate appearances) and strikeout (21.3 percent of his at-bats) rates well within line with his career averages (15.4 and 20.0); his isolated power was .235, not a far cry from his .256 career number; and his batted-ball breakdowns were roughly in the ballpark of his career norms. This might no longer be the .315-hitting, 45-homer slugger of four years ago, but a healthy Berkman can still contribute. He managed a .907 OPS last season, a level a declining slugger probably wouldn't reach.
The problem is that people need to begin drafting Berkman closer to the expected levels of an injury-prone slugger slightly past his prime, as in noticeably outside the top 100 and perhaps only about 15th at his deep position. Last year's No. 138 ranking might be just about right -- which would put him right in the value ballpark of another first baseman in the state of Texas, Chris Davis (ADP 142.8). Davis' owners will be taking the chance he has developed enough to approach Berkman's prime-years power numbers; Berkman's owners will be taking the chance he can stay healthy for long enough to do the same.
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Prospective Berkman owners will also need to be patient, as there's a good chance he'll reside on the DL come Opening Day, perhaps miss much if not all of April, then struggle for a couple weeks to regain his timing, as he did in 2005. If you're not a patient type, and think his drafting owner isn't either, he might be a player worth targeting in a midseason trade, perhaps around Memorial Day, instead of drafting.
That total package is still very much a viable fantasy first baseman -- it just might not feel like it for a slugger who once ranked among the best at his position.
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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