Well, it's been percolating out there on the hot-stove rumor wires for a few days, with Nolan Ryan being the primary driver of its possible actualization, and this afternoon it appears to be coming -- or have already come -- together, as FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Rangers are "finalizing an agreement" with free-agent DH Lance Berkman on what is expected to be a one-year deal. A second-year vesting option is possibly, though not certainly, in the offing.
[4:00 p.m. CST update: According to various reports circulating around the Twittersphere, Berkman's contract is structured so that he'll bank $10 million guaranteed in 2013, and will have a 2014 option of a still-unspecified value which will vest if he reaches 525-550 at-bats (or maybe plate appearances) in 2013. The buyout on this second-year vesting option is $1 million, making the total obligation either $11 million for one year if the option doesn't vest or the Rangers buy the option out, or $10 million plus his unspecified 2014 salary if the option does vest or the Rangers pick the option up anyway.]
Ryan, for his part, publicly confirmed the Rangers' interest in Berkman over the last 48 hours or so, and then told Houston TV station FOX 26 last night that the Rangers had formally tendered an offer to Berkman and were awaiting his response; Gerry Fraley, meanwhile, reported last night that Berkman wanted a guaranteed two-year deal, and while it seems that the Rangers may be close to successfully pulling off the one-year-plus-vesting-option deal that they seek, Berkman replied "not yet" to an inquiry this afternoon on whether the deal was finished.
I suspect there's a certain inevitable amount of eye-rolling being undertaken by the fan base in response to the Berkman-to-Texas thing happening, tracing all the way back to his January 2011 comments about his belief that the 2011 Rangers would be an "average team" (they weren't), that their pitching wouldn't hold up (it did), and that the Adrian Beltre signing was something of a reach (it hasn't been). If that hacked you off then or still hacks you off to this day or gives you sufficient cause to hold a long-standing grudge towards Berkman, then, well, more power to you -- but the Rangers have a far greater interest in bolstering their ballclub by whatever means they deem necessary than worrying about a vaguely acrimonious exchange of headline-grabbing words from the past.
Berkman, who turns 37 in a month, is coming off an injury-shortened 32-game season where he threw up a .259/.381/.444 (125 wRC+) triple-slash line in limited action, and a 2011 season where he produced at a vintage mid-aughts level (587 PA, .301/.412/.547, 163 wRC+) for the eventual world champion Cardinals. Those numbers, in conjunction with his overall borderline Hall of Fame career, is what gives you some basis for dreaming on Berkman as a significant middle-order presence for Texas in 2013, with a healthy Berkman potentially being good for a 120-130 wRC+ as a median projection and something greater than that if you're supremely confident in Berkman's ability to rebound from an injury-marred season -- one where the primary issue was a troublesome right knee that eventually required surgery -- and his potential output at the Ballpark.
The downside here, though, is that Berkman is fairly old and exhibiting signs of injury-proneness, and while the Rangers presumably liked the outlook on his medicals enough to commit an eight-digit sum towards him for 2013, the reality is that old, injury-prone guys "tend to get injured." Looking at this from the Rangers' perspective, though, you take note of the fact that each of his DL-necessitating injuries from 2009-12 was a lower-half injury to a knee, an ankle, etc., and you probably operate off the assumption that utilizing Berkman almost exclusively as a designated hitter going forward will alleviate some of the physical risk that has turned off so many of his potential suitors this winter.
I think the Rangers are also looking at Berkman and his injury history with the belief that if he's healthy, he's probably going to be productive, which may be enough to strip away some of the apprehension as far as his vesting option is concerned. Put another way, if Berkman actually does log enough playing time in 2013 to trigger his 2014 vesting option, there's a pretty decent chance that he will have hit well in 2013 enough for Texas to be okay with carrying Berkman at his guaranteed 2014 salary.
The other big issue here is that, okay, Berkman can mash (if healthy), and the Rangers are going to equip him with a role and a home ballpark which should assist him in effectively performing his one main function (to mash), but he's going to incur a significant value penalty by virtue of playing DH (-17.5 runs per 600 plate appearances), one which will probably limit his value on the wins above replacement scale to something around 2-2½ wins if he's reasonably healthy and amasses around 500-600 plate appearances. That's not a particularly impressive buy on the WAR scale (about $5 million per win, give or take $500,000 going either way), but it's important to note that:
(a) The Rangers wanted a probable source of consistent, quality offensive production to plug the middle-order holes left behind by Mike Napoli/Josh Hamilton, and after an off-season full of misses on that front they were likely a bit more eager to jump on an opportunity like this now than they would have been a few months ago;
(b) The Rangers were positioned to go into the season with a hodgepodge consisting of Mike Olt, A.J. Pierzynski, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and whomever else as their 2013 "solution" at designated hitter, and it's not hard to see why that held limited appeal for the organization (as did keeping Michael Young in that role);
(c) With Berkman's guaranteed $11 million obligation factored in, the Rangers' 2013 Opening Day payroll -- including their projected 25-man roster (with arbitration forecasts), Scott Feldman's buyout, Colby Lewis's and Neftali Feliz's respective salaries/forecasted salaries, and the $10 million they picked up on Michael Young's contract -- is projected at $124.4 million, which falls smack dab in the middle of the club's $120-130 million expected Opening Day payroll range, and still leaves some amount of payroll maneuverability.
And, of course, there's the idea -- which I intend to expand upon further next week -- that the Rangers, with their projected high-80s win total for 2013, fall into a particularly sensitive area of the win curve where they should be willing to pay more for each additional marginal win above replacement than the supposed going rate of $5 million. If you're fairly high on Berkman and fairly low on what the amalgam of Olt/Pierzynski/Cruz/Murphy/Moreland/et al. would have been able to throw down at DH for the Rangers in 2013, then you're probably looking at this signing as a net addition of 1½-2 wins to their 2013 projected win total -- and in a tight AL West division where the on-paper talent margin between the Rangers and Angels is really small, it may be that the Berkman signing ends up being the difference between winning the division and being cast into another wild-card crapshoot ... or, for that matter, missing the playoffs altogether.
I'm still rather guarded in my praise of this signing, because you don't have to possess a particularly overactive imagination to envision how Berkman could end up being a bust for Texas, and $10-11 million guaranteed for a DH coming off major knee problems isn't going to be regarded as a coup by anyone, and, honestly, I don't love the signing ... but I do like it, and if the Rangers were going to pull the trigger on some open-market signing with a potentially meaningful impact at this point in the off-season, I'd prefer it to be Berkman at this contract length and price point over Adam LaRoche, Michael Bourn, or Kyle Lohse at the sums they're still expected to command.