This past off season, when the St. Louis Cardinals paid Lance Berkman $8 million to patrol right field for them, I thought it was some sort of joke. Paying that much money to a 35 year old who hadn’t played more than 50 games in the outfield since 2004 seemed to me to represent everything that was bad about the National League.

Then, after Berkman hit eight home runs in the first month of the year, I imagined that it was only a matter of time until his luck ran out and he turned back into the player who only had 14 dingers in all of 2010. Since then, Berkman has gone on to hit 23 more home runs, put together a .970 OPS, a .405 wOBA, a .259 ISO and have the second highest walk rate in the National League.

Even if Berkman has struggled at times defensively, the contract has turned into one of the better bargains of the year. However, in order to retain his services for next season, the Cardinals are going to have to show him a little bit more than love and appreciation.

After locking up pitcher Chris Carpenter for the next two seasons, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has turned his attention to Berkman and shortstop Rafael Furcal, both holding contracts that expire after this season. After initially appearing as though it would be little difficulty in locking up Berkman, things have reached something of an impasse that isn’t going to be solved by anything but cold, hard cash.

According to Berkman:

It’s always about money. No matter what people say, it’s always about the money.

My background in public relations normally makes me cringe at these types of honest admissions to the public, but as a baseball fan, Berkman’s honesty about his and others’ mercenary status is somewhat refreshing.

Of course it’s about the money. Berkman has made over $100 million in his career, and at his advanced age, in terms of baseball players, combined with his great numbers, this coming off season likely represents his last chance to earn some money.

The question then becomes what kind of expectations can be placed on the shoulders of a 36 year old baseball player the year after a career resurgence. A two year deal worth between $20-$25 million might be a tempting deal to make for a team that could potentially lose its biggest offensive threat in a few months.

Considering that Berkman, as a signed free agent, has offered his team more than $20 million worth of value this season, I wonder if the Cardinals justify the expense of a two year contract by considering the value he offered this season to be a part of any future payment. We’ve seen the dangers in this type of thinking just this past off season when the San Francisco Giants rewarded Aubrey Huff with a two year $20 million deal after a surprisingly successful 2010.

As a potential Type A free agent, the St. Louis Cardinals should let Berkman walk. Between Albert Pujols, Berkman, Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes’ impending free agency, the team has the chance to build an entire farm system in the 2012 draft. If the Cardinals are worried about the meantime, they would do well to remember that they’re in the National League Central Division.

Given the recent moves by the Milwaukee Brewers, the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates (yep, you read that right), the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup and a new GM for the Chicago Cubs (and likely the Houston Astros), things aren’t going to be getting any easier for the Cardinals any time soon. Why not take this off season to begin the rebuild, buy a few stop gaps on the free agent market and hope for the best.

After all, next year’s Casey Kotchman could be this year’s Berkman.