Berkman roams outfield again for Cardinals
Cardinals unconcerned with veteran's ability in right, just health
JUPITER, Fla. -- Lance Berkman has been there before.
In fact, Berkman has been an outfielder in 871 Major League games over his 12-year career.
But Berkman has not played the outfield since 2007. To make things worse, an arm injury has forced him to be a designated hitter for most of the spring, and that has some concerned with his ability to move back to a more physically demanding position.
The 35-year-old took a major step towards proving his ability as an outfielder on Thursday, when he started in right field during the Cardinals' 5-2 loss to the Marlins.
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"This is the right day to do it," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "We could've done it next week. I'm not worried about his outfield play. He's tracked enough balls and he can read. He's got good hands. Let's just get him healthy."
Berkman is not concerned with moving back to the outfield, either. While he has never been considered a great fielder, he believes his experience, combined with an improved physical condition, will allow him to make a smooth transition.
"I've got almost 1,000 games in the outfield," Berkman said. "I'm an outfielder. I came up as an outfielder. I've played a full year of center field in the big leagues. I can play the outfield."
The Cardinals' new right fielder did not get a ton of action on Thursday, but he did have to cleanly field some base hits and make good throws to his cutoff man. Berkman succeeded in all of his fielding chances, and that is exactly what La Russa wants to see from him.
"All he's got to do is get to the ball and hit the cutoff man," La Russa said. "If you can do that in our league, then you're OK. For 100 years, that's the number one thing an outfielder has got to do. You hit the cutoff man, and the guys on the bases stop. Will a guy take an extra base here and there? Yeah, probably, but hitting the cutoff man stops runners."
Keeping Berkman healthy is a concern for the Cardinals' skipper. La Russa is aware of the time the veteran has missed over the past few years due to injury, and he has already had to deal with limitations this spring. However, La Russa is confident that Berkman will be a solid contributor -- as long as he is healthy.
"I just want him to be healthy," La Russa said. "I think if we take care of him, he will play a lot and have a solid year. Nobody knows. I mean, if he has to hit two triples in a game, he might get a little sore and need a day off, but it's the same process with every player. As long as he's healthy, we've got a player, and I think he'll be healthy."
Now that he is moving at full strength, Berkman is happy to be back roaming the outfield.
"It's always easier when you are playing defense to get into the rhythm of the game, and it certainly keeps you loose," Berkman said. "A lot of times it's hard if you have a long time between at-bats. I [was the designated hitter] last year, but I do like playing defense. I feel like you get into a better rhythm that way."
That rhythm may help him improve on his .229 Grapefruit League batting average. Despite less-than-stellar numbers this spring, Berkman is happy with his swing.
"I feel good. I have zero results, but I'm seeing the ball good," Berkman said. "I feel like I'm hitting the ball hard. This is a tough ballpark to hit in. I saw something where the Marlins and the Cardinals are the two lowest-scoring teams in the National League, and I think it's a direct result of where we play. You can kill the ball here and it's just a fly ball. I feel like I've hit the ball better than the results indicate."
Even with his Spring Training struggles, offensive production is not the main concern with Berkman heading into the season. That is why he worked hard to come into camp in better shape than he has been in the past, and he can focus on playing the outfield without worrying about any other distractions.
"From a mental standpoint, it's great to know that I've done everything that I can do to get ready for this. Now it's just up to going out there and playing," Berkman said. "The physical part of it I hope is behind me. The knee, the elbow and everything else I hope is behind me. Now it's just a matter of going out there and playing the position."
David Villavicencio is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.