With spring training in sight, Lance Berkman acknowledges he’s mulling options and “still a little bit in limbo” when it comes to next season and his Hamlet dilemma: to play or not to play.
That is the question even his daughters are tired of hearing.
“They all want to go back to St. Louis,” Berkman said Thursday. “I’ve explained that it is probably not likely because of the personnel situation there and what the team wants. They’re sad that it’s not going to happen. They’re probably over me wondering if I’ll play, though. I know I want to see what is out there.”
Berkman returns from the holidays ready to pursue discussions with several teams that have shown interest. He received two offers before Christmas and hopes to revisit them with the teams he declined to name. The Texas Rangers have reached out and appear a natural fit, but so too have several American League East teams like Tampa Bay, Baltimore and, earlier in the winter, Boston. Working out as if he’ll report for spring training next month, Berkman said he’s not “overwrought” about setting a deadline to sign. Berkman, 36, said he’s in a “good spot” to pick a preferred destination with no pressure.
On the other end of free agency is another former Cardinal, pitcher Kyle Lohse, who has found his market chilled by the repercussions of a new rule this winter.
Lohse, 34, has fielded interest but not yet received an offer. The leading cause dates back to a decision the Cardinals made with Lohse and Berkman two months ago. The Cardinals presented Lohse with a one-year, $13.3-million qualifying offer that he and his agent Scott Boras rejected. That offer assured the Cardinals, who have not revisited signing Lohse since, would receive a draft pick as compensation when he signed with another team. The club did not make the same offer to Berkman, its other free agent.
Draft-pick compensation for free agents has been around for years, but in an attempt to streamline it for a new collective bargaining agreement, the rules created an unexpected catch. The team that signs a free agent like Lohse loses a pick and, perhaps more importantly, it loses that pick’s suggested bonus from their capped draft pool. The team would have less to spend on draft picks and less flexibility when awarding bonuses. At least one team interested in Lohse pulled back because of that penalty. Lohse and eight other players received qualifying offers.
Two signed with their previous teams, which don’t lose the pick or gain compensation.
Four are still free agents.
“It’s not exactly the situation I envisioned, not at all,” Lohse said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It hasn’t been exactly a free market because I’m tied to a draft pick and other guys in my class aren’t. That comes at a price. You can’t compare this to anything in the past because it hasn’t been like this.”
Free of the draft-pick snag because Washington didn’t give him a qualifying offer, Edwin Jackson finalized a four-year, $52-million deal with the Cubs on Wednesday. Other free-agent pitchers like Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez, both of whom have signed, were not eligible for qualifying offers because they were traded during the season.
Lohse doesn’t doubt a fair contract will arrive, it just may take an inventive solution to make a fit and the compensation rule already has limited his suitors.
Berkman’s suitors have been defined by a far different rule: the designated hitter. Limited to 32 games and 97 at-bats in 2012 because of knee injuries and surgery, Berkman is being pursued by American League teams interested in having him DH. It’s a role he’s warmed to because it could mean longevity.
“You want to play as much as you can,” Berkman said. “If I can play, I want to play. I’ll give the team everything I have.”
Berkman received a cortisone shot at the end of the 2012 season as a “jumpstart” for the offseason, and he’s continued workouts to improve his strength and conditioning. He normally wouldn’t swing a bat until reporting to camp. But with so few at-bats last season with the Cardinals he plans to start earlier this year and expects to receive another anti-inflammatory shot into his rebuilt right knee before beginning spring training.
“I can ratchet it up to be ready,” he said.
He and his agent agreed that they would dive into negotiations in the coming weeks. Houston, the hometown club, has signed Carlos Pena and doesn’t appear to be in the market for Berkman. The Texas native said the Rangers would have an obvious geographic advantage, but he’s also looking for opportunity — and compensation.
“In a way they have to buy me out of retirement, and I know that sounds crass — I wish it didn’t — but it’s a big commitment, it can put a strain on the family,” said Berkman, who has been working with Rice University’s baseball team this winter. “If I’m going to play, I’m going to give my heart and soul to the team. But if the carrot’s not big enough, the mule isn’t going to want to go.”
Berkman turns 37 in February. After 14 seasons in the majors, he has six All-Star appearances and four top-five finishes in the MVP voting. He won the desired World Series championship in 2011, his first year with the Cardinals. The switch-hitting veteran agreed that pursuing 2,000 hits (he has 1,843) and 400 homers (he has 360) are “still enticing.” But they aren’t, per se, the kind of carrots that move the mule.
After preparing this winter, there is a guiding reason he would decide to play.
It’s because he always has.
“There’s this: It’s what you do,” Berkman said. “There is a certain satisfaction that comes from working and doing something you have always done as a career. As long as you’re able to do it and there is an opportunity to do it and it doesn’t negatively affect your family, there is something psychologically lifting about doing what you always have.
“The main reason to play is I’ve played baseball all of my life,” Berkman concluded. “I feel like I am still capable of doing it at a high level. Why wouldn’t I?”