Can Lance Berkman bounce back in 2013 with Texas Rangers?

Lance Berkman flips a bat in spring training for the Texas Rangers
Texas Rangers fans hope Lance Berkman carries a big stick in 2013. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

As if blowing their division lead on the regular season’s final day wasn’t miserable enough, the Texas Rangers followed up their late-season collapse with a lean winter. They waved goodbye when sluggers Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli signed with new teams. They parted ways with veteran leader and fan favorite Michael Young. They winced when Nelson Cruz‘s name surfaced in the latest PED scandal. They whiffed on Justin Upton.

Talk about a rough offseason. Faced with limited options and suddenly short on offense, the Rangers turned to Lance Berkman. Texas inked the longtime Houston Astro to a one-year contract worth $10 million plus a vesting option for 2014.

At first glance, the acquisition signaled desperation on the part of the Rangers. Signing a 37-year-old who needed four separate trips to the disabled list last year isn’t a sound investment, even when said player has made six All-Star teams and is one of the best switch-hitters of all time.

It’s no secret that Lance Berkman is past his prime. His body is breaking down. He’s playing on a bum right knee that required two surgeries last year, adding to the host of leg issues that have prevented him from reaching 500 at-bats in a season since 2008. Given his age and injury history, at this stage in his career he’s all but guaranteed to miss a good chunk of time.  Even if he manages to avoid the DL, the Texas heat figures to wear him down over the course of a long season.

Signing Lance Berkman isn’t so much as a longshot as it is a calculated risk, one that could prove to be a massive steal if he has a renaissance season similar to the one that earned him National League Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2011. Two seasons later, another return to glory is well within the realm of possibility. Moving to the most hitting-friendly venue outside of Colorado will boost his numbers, or at least offset some of his age and injury-related decline. Being a DH full time should limit injury risk and keep his body fresh. Plus it’s always nice batting in the heart of a potent lineup. Ron Washington has already said he’s going to bat his new DH third to replace Hamilton’s spot in the order. That means he’ll have plenty of RBI opportunities with Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus setting the table for him. It also means that he’s well-protected with Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz batting behind him.

Lance Berkman seems primed for a comeback, but what can the Rangers (and fantasy owners) expect from him in 2013? His age is worrisome, but not enough to label him “washed up.” Age 37 is old in baseball years, but not too old to be a productive designated hitter, as Paul MolitorJim Thome and Edgar Martinez have proven. Father Time catches up to everyone at some point, but Lance Berkman was a beast at 35 and hit well enough in limited action last year to suggest that his skills are still intact.

Still, it’s tricky trying to forecast what Berkman will do in 2013. Bill James projects him to play 134 games, club 21 home runs and bat .273/.389/.485 (.369 wOBA).  FanGraphs is equally optimistic, predicting him to sock 19 dingers and bat .279/.384/.470 (.366 wOBA) in 123 games. Texas has to be thrilled if it can squeeze that kind of production out of Berkman. Last year, the team’s DHs (mainly Napoli and Michael Young) batted a disappointing .265/.323/.432 with 18 homers and 78 RBI. If healthy, Berkman is a good bet to reach or exceed those numbers. It makes sense to split the difference and peg him for 20 bombs, 80 RBI, and a .275 batting average. His ceiling is 2011 and his floor is 2012, so in all likelihood, he falls somewhere in between those two extremes.

The bottom line is that despite his age and recent injury history, Lance Berkman is definitely worth a spot in AL-only leagues. Mixed-league owners shouldn’t reach for him but could be pleasantly surprised if they take a flier on him late in the draft. Offense is hard to come by these days, and you need to get it where you can. Even if it’s in the form of a 37-year-old playing on one leg.

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