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Mark Townsend

Square peg in round hole: Cards sign Berkman to one-year deal

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Here's a head scratcher for you on a Saturday night: Lance Berkman(notes), who was thought to be a perfect fit for an American League team such as the Oakland A's, has a signed a one-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to play, uh ... the outfield?

Obviously he's not going to be playing 130 games at first base for the Cardinals in 2011, barring an Albert Pujols(notes) injury. But it's pretty obvious he's going to be penciled into Tony LaRussa's lineup those 130 times somewhere, or else they wouldn't have invested $8 million.

You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find Berkman's last full season as an outfielder. Even then, he wasn't exactly a plus defender out there and that necessitated a slow transition to first base that took complete effect in 2008. Asking him to make that quick transition back to the outfield, especially at this stage in Berkman's career, is an interesting gamble for St. Louis. One the odds certainly don't favor.

The offensive versatility Berkman provides as a switch-hitter probably outweighed the defensive concerns for St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, but even that portion of his game is overvalued. Berkman only managed a .171/.261/.256 line against left-handed pitchers last season, and was forced into a true platoon with Marcus Thames(notes) down the stretch for the New York Yankees.

Of course, it's not a head scratcher from Berkman's perspective. He wants to play for a contender, he's willing to change positions to do so, and the AL teams chasing him weren't going to afford him the opportunity to do either. But from the St. Louis side you have to wonder if they couldn't have found a better fit to improve their chances to unseat the Cincinnati Reds in 2011.

Another question raised by today's signing is how will the city of Houston deal with Lance's return in a St. Louis uniform. Will there be organized chants for each plate appearance? Will there be an endless supply of uncreative signs?

We'll find out in a little less than five months. The Cardinals first trip to Houston is April 26-28.

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