Berkman confident Cardinals will be fine

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — Lance Berkman thinks the St. Louis Cardinals will be just as dangerous this season without Albert Pujols in the lineup as they were with him batting third.

“If I play up to my ability they’re not going to notice much of a drop off,” Berkman said. “It’s just a matter of playing up to my ability.”

The 36-year-old Berkman will replace Pujols at first base in his second season in St. Louis, moving in from right field which now belongs to free agent acquisition Carlos Beltran.

Berkman had a revival while helping St. Louis win the World Series title. He hit .301 with 31 home runs, 94 RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage, his best season since 2008. He was seventh in the MVP voting, two spots behind Pujols.

Berkman played 145 games after hobbling through 122 games in 2010 following left knee surgery during spring training.

“You don’t realize what it’s like to try to get through a season and compete at this level when you’re not right,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You’re fighting an uphill battle the whole time.”

Beltran, who played with Berkman in 2004 in Houston, was not surprised to see Berkman regain his old form.

“Here’s a guy who’s had years like that in his past,” Beltran said. “But when you’re not healthy there’s a lot of things you’re not going to be able to accomplish out there.

“Last year he showed he was healthy and he’s the same player he was when he was in Houston.”

The biggest issue this spring is not his health but Berkman’s increased role in the absence of Pujols, who left St. Louis after 11 seasons to sign a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels.

Berkman could follow Pujols in another area. Not only is he returning to first base, he is a candidate to replace Pujols in the No. 3 spot in the order.

Berkman, Beltran and Matt Holliday are Matheny’s the options.

Yet, Berkman is not worried about replacing a man who has averaged more than 40 home runs and 120 RBI in his career.

“I don’t know that our lineup will be quite as explosive as it was last year because it’s hard to replace 40 home runs,” Berkman said. “But we’re still going to score runs, I think we still have a very strong lineup up and down, and our pitching staff is going to be better.

“I look for us to be extremely competitive. I don’t see any reason why we can’t compete for the title.”

Berkman was so comfortable in St. Louis after spending his entire career in Houston — with the exception of two months with the Yankees — that he re-signed with the Cardinals last September, in the middle of their remarkable run to the title.

After making $8 million in 2010, he received $12 million for this season. The importance of Berkman returning was magnified when Pujols left.

“There’re some smart people in our front office,” Matheny said. “That just wasn’t a chance thing. That was very calculated. You just never know how things are going to go in the offseason. It was a great move.”


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