A look at the newest Yankees: Lance "Big Puma" Berkman and Austin Kearns

Sometime this afternoon the Yankees will officially announce that they have acquired Lance Berkman from the Astros for Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes. In a separate deal, the Yankees traded for the Indians’ Austin Kearns for a player to be named later, who will obviously be of little consequence.

Both of these are solid upgrades to the Yankees’ league-leading offense. The big catch is obviously Berkman — though many of us in Yankeeland were hoping for the Yanks to reel in Yankeeist favorite Adam Dunn in, clearly the cost was far too prohibitive for a player who will be a free agent after the season. Berkman may well have been the next-best bat available — at least as far as cost is concerned — and inserting the switch-hitting Berkman’s .356 wOBA into the lineup will only yield good things, especially when one considers that the Yankees’ lack of a real designated hitter since Nick Johnson went down has resulted in far too many plate appearances for the likes of Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena and Colin Curtis.

Here’s what Berkman and Kearns have done during the last few seasons:

Berkman’s clearly been a beast throughout his career. I know he’s been very good for a long time, but I have to confess I had no idea he had a career .410 OBP and .405 wOBA prior to looking at his numbers. Of course, injuries finally began to slow the 34-year-old this season, as he posted a .339 wOBA in April and .332 in June. However, Berkman seems to have picked things up considerably since then, with a .357 wOBA in June and a .392(!) wOBA in July. That .392 would be the third-best mark on the Yankees in the month of July, after Mark Teixeira (.487) and Nick Swisher (.431).

I don’t think anyone expects Berkman to rake at quite that level for the remainder of the season, but if he can hit his ZiPS Rest-of-Season projection of .267/.384/.489 with a .383 wOBA and nine home runs, he’ll still represent a huge addition to the Yankee lineup. Even if Berkman ends up producing in the .360 to .370 wOBA range while in pinstripes he’ll be a significant upgrade. All the talk about the Yankees having this circular lineup will actually start being true again — it’s been quite frustrating to see the Yankees trot out below-average hitters in the bottom half of the lineup for much of the season; and Berkman helps significantly extend the batting order and put that much more pressure on opposing pitchers.

That they traded Berkman for Mark Melancon speaks volumes about how far Melancon’s stock had fallen with the team. Once billed as the “Heir to Mariano,” clearly the Yankee Hype Machine was in overdrive to try to build up Melancon’s trade value. Hey, I’ll admit I bought into it, although Melancon did have some pretty stellar minor league numbers even if he did struggle in The Show.

In 2008 at Trenton Melancon had a 1.81 ERA with a 3.05 FIP in 49,2 IP, and at Scranton a 2.70 ERA with a 2.44 FIP in 20 IP. In 2009 as Scranton’s closer he had a 2.89 ERA with a 2.69 FIP over 53 IP, so clearly there’s talent there. Unfortunately he wasn’t given much of an opportunity to showcase it and the few times he did get called the the Bigs he looked pretty terrible. In 2009 the Yankees gave him 16.1 IP and he produced a 3.86 ERA (4.44 FIP) and 1.40 WHIP, and this season in just 4 innings he had a 9.00 ERA (4.86 FIP) and 1.75 WHIP. For whatever reason he apparently has been struggling this season back in AAA, with a 3.67 ERA and 4.03 FIP over 56.1 innings.

I’m certainly not heartbroken about trading a minor league reliever for an impact bat like Berkman’s, although it’ll be interesting to see whether Melancon can actually reach the potential so many saw in him as he developed in the Yankee farm system with the Astros. As a corollary, this could also mean that the Yankees are in fact done with Joba Chamberlain as a starter for good and are hoping that he can one day grow into the closer role. I remain in the “Joba needs to start” camp, but with each passing day it just seems less and less likely.

As for Kearns, he’s never been quite the same player who set the league on fire his rookie year in 2002, posting a .394 wOBA over 435 plate appearances that season. After two injury-plagued seasons as a National in 2008 and 2009, he caught on with the Indians this year and hit out of his mind in the first month of the season (.463 wOBA). Needless to say he’s come back to earth since then (.306 wOBA in May, .338 in June, .313 in July), but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player. The veteran Kearns strengthens a rather thin bench, and he also won’t kill you if you give him a couple of starts in the outfield.

I like both of these moves a lot, especially given the relatively low cost in players on the Yankees’ side of the equation. Berkman is the big bat this lineup has sorely needed since Nick the Injury went down (speaking of The Stick, if he does end up making it back to the team before the season is over, that would fortify the roster even further — visions of N the S working a pinch-hit walk in the playoffs are dancing in my head), and Kearns is a solid complementary piece.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yankees swing one more move before the deadline today at 4pm, although what that might be I really have no idea.

3 thoughts on “A look at the newest Yankees: Lance "Big Puma" Berkman and Austin Kearns

  1. Yup, Curtis and Miranda will be the odd men out here, which is fine as both Berkman and Kearns represent significant upgrades.

  2. These are fantastic trades for the Yanks. Bravo Brian Cashman, bravo!

    Berkman is a stud and guess what?…Your DH shouldn't be a 26 yr old stud; it should be a vet who knows how to meet bat to ball, and hit for power, plain and simple…Berkman knows how to hit, for power, and do it with consistency. He is a household name, especially after he batted something like .485 through July in 2008. (exaggeration, but you get the point).

    Melancon was complete garbage and never looked like he had the stuff to compete in the Bronx. I've never even heard of the 2B and I'm not too concerned about a PTBNL.

    The next move will be at the 11th hour and it will remove Chan Ho Park from his pinstripes.