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Berkman looking for bounce-back season

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — He's the face of the franchise, a five-time All-Star and one of the last holdovers from the Houston Astros' only World Series appearance that seems more distant that just four seasons ago.

The Astros are starting fresh with a new manager and a revamped roster, but Lance Berkman is still the most vital position player in the clubhouse, a veteran leader and one of the greatest hitters in franchise history.

The first baseman epitomized the team's struggles in 2009, missing a month with a strained calf and finishing with a .274 average, 25 homers and 80 RBIs, among the lowest numbers of Berkman's 11-year career.

Berkman turned 34 this month and he's entering the final guaranteed year of an $85 million contract. The team holds the option to bring him back in 2011 or buy him out for $2 million.

Houston drafted Berkman in 1997 out of nearby Rice, and the team has a history of showing loyalty to its most recognizable players. But Berkman understands the business side, too. If the franchise wants to let him go, Berkman said Wednesday, he can envision himself retiring or playing elsewhere in 2011, despite his strong ties to the team and city.

"It may come down to a situation where if things don't go well this year, they don't pick up my option and I probably won't be back," Berkman said before the first full squad workout at spring training. "If they don't pick it up, I'll probably just take my ball and go home.

"It's just on general principle. If they don't pick my option up, then to me, that says they may like me to come back at a discount, but they don't really want me. If that's the case, I'll just see what else is out there."

Team owner Drayton McLane said he hasn't given much thought to Berkman's contract status and the Astros will address that later in the season.

"Our focus is getting off to a good start," McLane said "We've got a brand new manager, a number of new players and so, to focus on that and concentrate on Lance's option or contract, this is not the time to do it."

Berkman also said he isn't looking too far ahead and he's eager to play for first-time manager Brad Mills, who's introduced a high-energy vibe that was missing most of last season under Cecil Cooper.

"I'm certainly more interested to see how the atmosphere is going to be," Berkman said. "It's always good to see everybody you haven't seen in a while, and meet the new guys. This is an exciting time of the year."

Berkman ranks in the top 10 in every major offensive category in the Astros' record book. He is second to Jeff Bagwell in home runs (313), third to Bagwell and Craig Biggio in RBIs (1,049) and runs (969).

This year's lineup has some unproven hitters, so Berkman and slugger Carlos Lee will again have to shoulder the load. Berkman, the club's all-time leader in batting average (.299) and slugging percentage (.555) is used to that burden.

"We carry the mail, we hit third and fourth in the lineup," Berkman said. "We're expected to perform at a high level. If we don't, then we're not going to do well, so there's pressure built into that. But it's nothing new, we've been here before."

Berkman missed 18 games with a left calf strain last season, a big reason why the Astros ranked 14th in the NL in runs scored (640). Pitching ace Roy Oswalt sat out the last two weeks of the season with a lower back strain, and newly acquired starter Brett Myers missed three months last year following hip surgery.

If the Astros can avoid the training room, Berkman has high expectations for this season.

"I've got to stay on the field, Carlos has got to stay on the field, Roy has got to stay on the mound, Brett Myers has to come back and have a healthy season," he said, "If those things happen, we're going to be competitive. We have good personnel."