ST. LOUIS (AP) - Lance Berkman was a big question mark when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him to a one-year free agent deal last winter.
Look whose gamble paid off.
Shrugging aside a perceived career decline, the 35-year-old Berkman may be the top contender for Comeback Player of the Year. Way, way off the radar at the start of the year, he's a National League starting outfielder for tonight's All-Star Game, where he is making his first appearance since 2008.
"He's on pace to be one of the top three in the MVP voting," said general manager John Mozeliak, who signed Berkman to a relatively budget-friendly $8 million deal. "Unless there's somebody ahead of that, I would think you can't do much better than that."
Berkman has been a perfect fit for a team he used to bedevil during a decade with Houston. The lineup is deeper with the player known as Big Puma providing punch behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. He has far exceeded expectations at the plate, he is on track for a seventh season with 100 RBIs and first since 2008 and he has been solid with the glove in his first full season as a starting outfielder since 2004.
The Cardinals are tied for first in the NL Central despite a string of big injuries beginning with pitcher Adam Wainwright undergoing elbow surgery in spring training. Berkman has helped hold it all together.
The Astros were first to say no to Berkman. St. Louis quickly said yes.
"There's a lot of people doubted he could do this, doubted he could do that," manager Tony La Russa said. "Bat speed's gone, legs are gone, can't play the outfield. I mean, geez, we believed in him."
After the season, there'll be a lot of believers. Berkman will be among several big-ticket concerns on a list that begins with Pujols, due to be a free agent for the first time in his career. Longtime ace Chris Carpenter also will be a free agent and the Cardinals must decide whether to pick up the option on Wainwright.
In a less complicated scenario, re-signing Berkman would be a priority.
"Obviously, he's having a great season," Mozeliak said. "When the time comes, we'll address the situation."
Last year, Berkman battled a left knee injury and batted a career-worst .248 with 14 homers and 58 RBI for the Astros and Yankees. He briefly considered retiring, but started training.
The Cardinals were among Berkman's top choices and La Russa has long been an admirer.
The move raised eyebrows, given Berkman has been primarily a first basemen in recent years and that's where Pujols plays. Critics scoffed the Cardinals had signed a DH.
Before the season, La Russa set the bar low, saying he'd be happy if Berkman made the routine catches in right field and hit the cutoff man. The manager said he would make sure there was plenty of rest for Berkman, too.
Instead, Berkman has played in 82 games, fourth most on the team. While not a threat to gun down runners at the plate, his arm is strong enough.
La Russa is known for innovative lineups, often batting the pitcher eighth with a second leadoff type at the bottom to increase scoring opportunities for his big bats later in the game. He's also willing to sacrifice airtight defense to get dangerous bats in the lineup.
Pujols has made four starts at third base, Allen Craig has started at four positions, David Freese got a start at first base and rookie backup catcher Tony Cruz has made his first career starts at three spots, including right field Sunday.
Berkman predicted before the season playing the outfield would be easier on his legs than at first base and has been more durable than the stars batting ahead of him. Holliday, a fellow All-Star, missed 25 games with an appendectomy. While Pujols was on the 15-day disabled list with a broken left wrist, Berkman stepped in at first base, and he played 12 games in left while Holliday was out.
"He's a leader in the clubhouse and a guy who's been there, done that," infielder Nick Punto said. "He's definitely holding this thing together."
Not many have been better with the bat.
Hitting fourth and fifth, Berkman leads the league with 24 homers and is among the leaders with 63 RBI, along with a .290 average. Six of his last nine hits have cleared the fence, including a rocket estimated at 452 feet, longest ever at 6-year-old Busch Stadium.
The switch-hitter has four multihomer games, including one from both sides of the plate at Baltimore on June 30, and leads the majors with 18 road homers. He's among the NL leaders in walks, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Berkman signaled loud and clear he was back from the outset, batting .453 in April. Not much letup since.
"He's easily the pickup of the year, not only on the field but in the clubhouse," second baseman Skip Schumaker said. "Great leader, and I can't imagine anybody being better for this team. You couldn't ask for anything more."