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Cardinals bring Berkman back to NL Central

Cardinals bring Berkman back to NL Central

The Cardinals have long had great admiration for what the switch-hitting Lance Berkman brings to the middle of a lineup.

And the respect, it turns out, was mutual.

Berkman and the Cards finalized a one-year, $8 million deal that brings the longtime Astro and short-term Yankee back to the National League Central. Last year, Berkman made $14.5 million in the last year of the six-year deal he signed with Houston in 2005.

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Though general manager John Mozeliak struck out in attempts to land Berkman at the Trade Deadline last year and believed the chances of signing him to be less than 10 percent as recently as a week ago, this deal was worked out because of Berkman's desire to build on the Cards' long legacy and the Cards' belief in the 34-year-old Berkman's ability to return to the outfield.

"He's a winning player, and he brings tremendous leadership and respect to the clubhouse," Mozeliak said. "I think he has a great appreciation for the sport of baseball and the history of it. He looks at the St. Louis Cardinals as a premier place to play. It's always nice to have people who have great admiration for the history of the organization."

Of course, Berkman's days in the outfield are a part of history, too, which is why this contract is a great leap of faith on the part of the Cards.

Berkman is expected to become the club's regular left fielder, as Matt Holliday has volunteered to move over to right to accommodate him. No matter the exact alignment, Berkman will be an everyday presence in the outfield. That might seem strange, as he hasn't set foot in the outfield since 2007 and hasn't played there regularly since 2004, but Mozeliak said the Cardinals, who subjected Berkman to a physical examination Saturday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the Winter Meetings are about to take place, have reason to believe in Berkman.

"Obviously, it's a question," Mozeliak said. "But he looked to be in great shape. He lost some weight and is running real well. So we have a high level of confidence in him."

This is the second time this week that the Cardinals have acquired a former NL Central foe. Ryan Theriot, a former Cub, was brought aboard on Tuesday to help shore up the middle infield.

"When you think back to what we experienced in 2010," Mozeliak said, "what we've been able to accomplish the last week or so just changes the complexity or look of our clubhouse and adds some new energy that we really believe will put us in a positive direction."

Berkman is even more familiar to the Cards than Theriot, as he first came up with the Astros in 1999 and established himself as one of the top hitters in the division. Houston traded Berkman to the Yanks in the middle of the 2010 season.

So the Cardinals know quite well what Berkman -- who owns a career .296 average with 327 homers, 1,099 RBIs and a .409 on-base percentage that ranks fourth among active players -- can do with this bat.

As for what he can do with his glove, well, that remains to be seen. Even when he was patrolling the outfield way back when, Berkman's glove was not highly regarded. He played solely at first base for the Astros in 2008-10 and handled some DH duties for the Yanks after the trade.

The Cardinals, as you might have noticed, are pretty well set at first base.

Berkman, though, is hungry to prove he can handle everyday duties in the outfield, and he's also hungry to improve on a 2010 season that was his worst in the Majors, to date.

While dealing with a knee injury he suffered in Spring Training, Berkman batted .248 with a .781 OPS in 122 combined games and 404 at-bats between Houston and New York. He hit 14 homers with 23 doubles and 58 RBIs.

"You look at his year last year, and he hurt his knee in Spring Training and just never got going," Mozeliak said. "He feels he just never got 100 percent. He's used this offseason to energize himself and heal."

The Cardinals have used this offseason primarily to look at ways to improve the infield, but, in recent weeks, they began to take a good, hard look at the corner outfield situation, Mozeliak said. Berkman, meanwhile, reportedly had interest from the A's, Pirates, Blue Jays, Cubs and Rockies. Though the A's interest was particularly strong, Berkman wasn't particularly enamored with the possibility of latching on with another AL club to continue to serve as a DH.

"This took two parties [to complete]," Mozeliak said. "I think he had greater opportunities out there, financially, and I think he felt that this was just a place he wanted to play. Based on his desire to be here, that's when we started to realize we had a chance to get this deal done."

It's done, and so is the bulk of the Cardinals' winter spending. Mozeliak said the Cards are "pretty much a set club" at this point, though they'll continue to explore trade possibilities involving Brendan Ryan, who lost his starting shortstop job to Theriot. Mozeliak said there has been interest in Ryan that is worth exploring.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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