This winter, you're going to see teams spend tons of money on big bats. Albert Pujols could end up getting over $25 million per season. Prince Fielder is likely shooting for $200 million guaranteed. Even Michael Cuddyer is probably looking at a multi-year contract worth at least $10 million or so annually.
And yet, somehow, the St. Louis Cardinals managed to lock up Lance Berkman this morning for just $12 million over one season. In case you haven't noticed, Mr. Berkman just happens to be one of the best hitters in the NL this year. He's been better than Pujols; better than Fielder. Cuddyer wakes up in the middle of the night with dreams of having a season like the one Berkman's just had.
Sure, he's a tad old. Berkman turns 36 in February of 2012. Most players tend to lose a good deal of their skill as they delve into their 30's. And before this season it seemed like Berkman's previous greatness was gone, another casualty of the brutal reality of time. But great players tend to the be ones that are most likely to break away for the norm, and Berkman's play this season is a good example of that.
Only two players, Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp, have posted better wRC+ figures than Berkman this season. They're both considered franchise cornerstones. Berkman is obviously too old to be treated in that manner. But it's just a reflection of how good he's been at age-35; the only two players that have hit better than him are elite building blocks smack dab in their respective primes.
And because of all of that, you really couldn't see the Cardinals getting a better deal here. Most players coming off of a season of this caliber would presumably command multiple years at a seven-figure salary in this market. When he stumbled his way through a disappointing 2010, he still managed to coax an $8 million guarantee out of St. Louis.
But Berkman obviously isn't most players. He's openly considered retirement over the past couple years. He was recently quoted as preferring a one-year deal, opting to avoid the complexity of additional clauses like options and incentives. You can probably surmise from all of this that the slugger has given the Cardinals a bit of a hometown discount.
Since 2007, the Cardinals are the only team in baseball to sign a contract extension in September. They've done it five times now, the other 29 teams haven't done it once. Clearly, the Cardinals think they're onto something here, getting a jump on the free agent market by negotiating with key players as the season winds down. This kind of deal presumably exemplifies what the team thinks it can get done by negotiating these deals earlier than other teams.
On the market, an elite bat like Berkman would absolutely command more than one year and $12 million. Carlos Pena is slightly younger and didn't play nearly as well this season; it wouldn't surprise me at all if he came close to matching the contract Berkman just agreed to. So for the Cardinals to be able to strike while the iron is hot and land Berkman's 2012 services for just $12 million has to be seen as a pretty clear victory for Cardinals management.