Lance Berkman starts next chapter

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Lance Berkman knows how to tell a story, and once the Texas-twanged veteran gets going, he quickly attracts a crowd.

Such was the case the other day in the Texas Rangers' clubhouse, when Joe Nathan, Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland and a few others were listening intently and laughing along as Berkman spun yarns about some of his former teammates.

Minutes later, Berkman was leading a short, single-file line to the batting cages as Kinsler and Moreland grabbed their bats and followed him out the door.

"They were both saying they were going to go to the cage, and I figured that it's not going to hurt me at all to go listen to those guys with the success they've had," Moreland said. "I walked in there and listened."

Berkman shared his approach to hitting, offering a few tips. Then he asked Kinsler and Moreland some questions about their hitting strategies.

"When he speaks, people will listen," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I think he'll be like E.F. Hutton. He's a leader. Some people take leadership for granted. But inside of a clubhouse, leadership is important. It really is."

Berkman relishes the idea of teaching and sharing information.

"It's my favorite thing about playing baseball, and it's the reason I was excited about the chance to coach at Rice if I didn't play. I love the interaction and sharing of information," Berkman said. "I think it's essential to have that. It's nice to talk to those guys and pick their brains and they can pick mine and see together how you figure some things out."

Kinsler, for one, appreciates Berkman's willingness to talk about hitting.

"He's been very successful and he has a very good idea of how he did that and he's able to articulate it," Kinsler said. "Whenever you get can one of your peers to talk about hitting, it's a big benefit. He has more knowledge than me and more experience and success and to have that type of guy around is pretty cool."

But Berkman knows he must be more than a part-time coach for the Rangers. Washington has him penciled in the No. 3 hole, a critical spot in the lineup.

"If I am going to hit third, whoever hits third has got to be good," Berkman said. "You have to have a guy that's pretty consistent, that's producing at a high level. That makes the lineup go. I think there are several guys that are candidates for that spot."

For the most part, there was only one guy there for the past five seasons. Josh Hamilton had 142 homers, 506 RBIs and hit .305 in those seasons for the Rangers. Last year, Hamilton had 43 homers and 128 RBIs.

"I'm not going to be Josh Hamilton," Berkman said. "We're different players. He's more powerful than I am. He's bigger and stronger and faster and all those things. But there's some things I can do offensively when things are going well for me that can go a long ways toward plugging that hole and that's my goal."

To do that, Berkman's knees must hold up, and let's be honest -- they've got a lot more miles than a normal 37-year-old. That's no sure thing. He played in only 32 games last year after hitting .301 with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in 2011, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Rangers to win the World Series.

Berkman has been told to go through spring training at his own pace. That simply means: stay healthy. The Rangers don't want to take any chances on not having their primary designated hitter and a player they're counting on to help them produce some power and drive in runs.

"It doesn't make any sense to push it now," Berkman said. "We're not trying to win the Cactus League. We're trying to win the American League West."

Berkman says he isn't worried about his knees.

"Either they will [hold up] or they won't," Berkman said. "I'm going to do the best I can and make sure I do everything I can to strengthen them and condition them. I'll take care of everything I can do."

The Rangers need those knees and Berkman's bat to help them make up for the loss of Hamilton. And his words of wisdom to the rest of the club won't hurt, either.