Could Lance Come Back?

added 9/6/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Supposedly, when Lance Berkman agreed to be traded to the Yankees in July, he gave them two conditions: first, that the option year in his contract not be picked up and, secondly, that the Yankees not offer him salary arbitration.

The Yankees agreed and they received a .240-hitting DH with no homers since the trade. They also gave up righthander Mark Melancon, who is making himself at home in the Houston bullpen as well as A-ball infielder Jimmy Paredes.

Were the Yankees to pick up Berkman's option, he'd be a Yankee next year and making a lot of money. Were they to offer him arbitration, then Berkman would have cost the new team a compensation draft pick. Clearly, Lance wants to be a free agent this winter and I think he'd prefer to be an Astro. He is leaving a lot of money on the table to be somewhere that he enjoys more than New York.

In my last column, I detailed how the Astros will go into this winter with a roughly $10-$12 million surplus they could spend if they intend to reach the same payroll level as this year's $92 million budget. Could Ed Wade go "back to the future" and bring the popular Berkman back to Houston?

There are some pitfalls to that becoming reality but it looks more possible now than it did a few weeks ago, provided both sides can agree to a salary and Berkman is okay with perhaps no longer being the everyday first baseman.

Houston has their first baseman of the future in 24-year-old Brett Wallace. But Wallace's adjustment to the majors hasn't gone well. Most folks thought his bat was ready for the big time but the former third baseman was still rough around first base.

Instead, it's been the opposite. Wallace has already made some nifty plays around the bag, including some line drive double plays. But the hits have been slow to come. Through Sunday, he is batting just .202 with no homers and 30 strikeouts in under 100 at bats.

Pitchers quickly learned the book on Wallace. The plan is to bust him in on the hands. He has yet to learn how to hit those inside pitches nor how to lay off them. If he continues on this pace through the rest of the year, it's quite possible he will be spending next spring back in AAA.

Houston has three ways to handle their problem at first base. They could keep Wallace in the majors and keep sending him out onto the field and let him work his way through it. They could also move Carlos Lee from left field to first base, something he has been getting more time to learn. The third option would be to sign Berkman and let him begin the season at first while Wallace hones his skills back on the farm.

Of course, questions abound over the idea of Lance making a return. Does Lance want to come back? What type of money does Lance want? Is he willing to be a back-up if that becomes the best option? Do the Astros want him back or are they fully committed to staying with Wallace? How much will it hurt Wallace's confidence to be sent back to the minors or feel stuck behind a former All-Star?

At this point, nobody has those answers.

Moving Lee to first base opens up left field to the likes of Brian Bogusevic, another lefthanded batter who has some pop and can certainly patrol left better than Lee can. It could also be a place to put a free agent power bat that can give the Astros more home run power (the Astros are currently last in the National League with 90 homers, the only club not to hit the century mark this season).

Signing a power bat for left would surely eat up most of that surplus I had mentioned earlier and would probably also tie up money for several future years - which probably keeps Berkman out of any future scenario unless he's willing to take a drastic pay cut.

But if the Astros believe that they are best off next spring with Lee in left and Wallace in the minors, the opening is there for Berkman to return, although it would likely be in a diminished capacity. He would no longer be a staple of the lineup, particularly once Wallace adjusts and learns to deal with inside pitches. Having the second most prolific home run hitter in team history as a pinch-hit option late in games is not such a bad thing to have either.

Having Berkman around would give the Astros as much time as needed to get Wallace straightened out but it could also hold Wallace back if Berkman isn't able to humble himself and adapt into a new role when Wallace returns.

Lance is already complaining somewhat about being a platooned designated hitter with the Yankees. He'd rather be on the field and playing every day, for which you can't blame him. If he feels he still ought to be an everyday player, it's probably best that he look to another team than the Astros for next year.

Berkman went through several position changes in his younger days, even playing in center field when he obviously has nowhere near the skills out there that someone like Michael Bourn possesses. Berkman did it to stay in the lineup and do what was best for the team. He may need to summon some of that team-first attitude if he wants to return to Houston in 2011.

There's no doubt that Berkman would be a popular PR move for a club that is having trouble filling the stands, even with a winning product on the field. I like the new-look Astros but there's not much splash to draw in casual fans who need a superstar or an ace pitcher to lure them to the ballpark.

It could be a great fit if everyone is willing to make it work. And that's the big question that won't be answered until this winter.