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May 2, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Parting with a Puma, Welcoming a Walrus

by Larry Granillo

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It was an eye-opening week in Minute Maid Park, as Zod and the other residents of Planet Houston were treated to superb performances from first basemen of the Astros' past, present, and—perhaps—future.

Lance Berkman, the twelve-year Astros veteran who was traded to the Yankees late last year before signing with the Cardinals over the winter, made his return to Houston as a visiting player on Tuesday. He was well-received by the fans, who gave him an extended standing ovation in his first at-bat. When he laced a single to right field off of an inside fastball from Bud Norris, the crowd erupted into more cheers. Needless to say, the man with the second-most home runs in franchise history is still very popular in the Bayou City.

At the time of his trade to the Yankees last year, Berkman was in the middle of the last year of his contract and getting paid $14.5 million. He was batting only .245/.372/.436, with 13 home runs. At 34 years old and slowing down in the field, the Astros had every reason to think he wouldn't be worth a $15 million option for 2011. It was an understandable move, then, for the Astros to try to extract as much value from Berkman as they could via trade. Berkman's .255/.358/.349, one-home run-performance for the Yankees seemed to be proof that his old team had made the right call.

When the Cardinals signed Berkman in December and then announced that he would be their everyday right fielder, it had the appearance of a bad signing. Berkman, after all, hadn't played the outfield once since 2007 (and not regularly since 2004). On April 9, the Cardinals lost to the Giants in San Francisco, dropping their record to 2-6. Berkman finished the game with a .214 batting average. The season was looking to be a repeat of Berkman's time in pinstripes.

Two days later, the Cardinals were in Arizona. Berkman went 2-for-5 that afternoon, with two home runs, and hasn't let up since. In the 16 games he's played in over these last few weeks, Berkman has mustered two or more hits in ten of them. His batting average over that time is a preposterous .475, with an equally preposterous .967 slugging percentage to boot. By the time he stepped up to the plate in Houston, Berkman had raised his season line to .377/.449/.725. He capped off his visit home with a 4-for-5 night in the final game of the series, including another two-home-run performance (his third of the year). The Cardinals now sit atop the Central with a 16-12 record, while Berkman sits near the top of the leaderboard in every major offensive category.

While the Big Puma uses his brief trip to Minute Maid Park to help make his case as the National League Player of the Month for the Cardinals, Astros fans in Houston can take solace in the excellent performance of Berkman's replacement, Brett Wallace. The 6'2", 250 lb. first baseman had a tough go of things in 2010, when he was called up to fill Berkman's just-vacated spot. In fact, his major-league debut came on July 31, the day Berkman became a former Astro. His career got off to an inauspicious start, striking out on three pitches from Dave Bush in the first inning; he ended the night 0-for-4. Things didn't pick up all that much the rest of the year. In 51 games, Wallace struck out 50 times while hitting only two home runs and batting .222/.296/.319. For a slugger who hit .304 with an .863 OPS in his roughly two years (287 games) of minor-league ball, this was a bit disheartening.

Luckily for Wallace, the Astros were in a position to give him another shot in 2011. He entered the season as Houston's starting first baseman despite his poor 2010, though General Manager Ed Wade may have been the only one who believed in him. Baseball Prospectus 2011 had this to say about Wallace:

The portly southpaw showed almost nothing at the plate in his major-league debut, which didn't come as a complete shock given his merely adequate minor-league performances in recent seasons. As a bat-only prospect at a premium offensive position, Wallace has to mash to fulfill his potential, but his ceiling now appears to be that of a gap hitter with little foot speed and a reputation for selectivity that is wholly imaginary, an unimpressive profile that already has his new team pondering the possibility of trying left fielder Carlos Lee at first this spring. The best-case scenario is that the man they call "The Walrus" turns out to be the next Kevin Youkilis, but that's about as likely as the Walrus having actually been Paul.

For the first two weeks of the season, Wallace did his best to live up to his critics' expectations. On April 19, the Astros went into Citi Field with their starting first baseman batting .260 with a .360 slugging percentage. Wallace knocked out a couple of hits that afternoon and, like Berkman, has been on a roll ever since. In the last two weeks, he's batted .571 with a 1377 OPS and seven doubles. He has gone hitless in only one game over that span, and that was in a pinch-hit appearance where he worked a walk. In the three games against Berkman and the Cardinals, Wallace went 8-for-12 with three doubles. Even the Astros fans wearing their Puma costumes could look across the diamond from Berkman to Wallace last week and have reason to hope for the future.

On Friday, Wallace suffered a bruised hip when he and Prince Fielder collided at first. Wallace left the game in the collision's aftermath. He sat out the game Saturday (before his pinch-hit appearance), but started on Sunday with no apparent problems. Of course, neither Berkman nor Wallace could ever hope to maintain these paces for a full season (or even another two weeks). No one in Houston or St. Louis is expecting a .400 batting average come September. These ridiculously hot starts do tell us one thing, though: Berkman and Wallace deserve their starting jobs. One month ago, that wasn't a given for either.

***

In Chicago, the Cubs have their own star off to a hot start, though his comes with a bit of an asterisk. Alfonso Soriano finished the month of April tied with Ryan Braun for the major-league lead in home runs with ten. The ten round-trippers are a Cubs record for the month of April, beating out the eight April home runs hit by Lee Walls, Sammy Sosa, and Derrek Lee. Unlike Wallace and Berkman above, Soriano's home run pace has been steady. He hit his third home run in the sixth game of the season and has only once gone more than four games without going deep. Soriano did benefit from a late streak, though. In three consecutive games between the twin launching pads of Coors and Chase Fields, Soriano homered four times to end the month in double digits.

It's a power surge that any Cubs fan should be happy to see. Soriano's huge contract, after all, was offered with the expectations of some power coming from the left fielder. It's hard to say that Soriano is having a great season, though. Yes, his slugging percentage is a Bonds-esque .613 after 25 games, but power is the only thing Soriano has supplied so far this year. He is currently batting .258 with a .278 on-base percentage, for the rare .258/.278/.613 triple-slash line.

How is this possible? Heading into Sunday's game, Soriano had 97 plate appearance with three walks and one sacrifice fly. Of his 24 hits, thirteen had been for extra bases, with three doubles and the ten home runs (he also has 23 strikeouts on the year). Over 100 players have managed full seasons with such a high extra-base-hit-to-hits ratio, but no one has done it with as low a walk rate as Soriano has so far. When Soriano steps up to the plate, there has been a 1-in-4 chance that he'd strike out, a 1-in-2 chance that he'd get out in some other way, and a 1-in-8 chance that he'd hit a home run. It's almost as if the 2011 Soriano is a "two true outcomes" player.

In the meantime, the Cubs and their fans can marvel at the power Soriano has displayed this season. They will have to hope, though, that he starts taking more pitches. With such a low walk rate, pitchers will soon find little reason to throw him strikes, causing those home run and strikeout rates to head in opposite directions. Until that happens, the question of whether Alfonso Soriano is having a good year will remain difficult to answer.

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