Commentary

Rangers GM learns from early setbacks

Rough experiences give Daniels confidence to trade Teixeira, mold club's future

Updated: March 9, 2010, 12:46 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Jon Daniels knew he had a rare opportunity and needed to take advantage of it.

The Texas Rangers' general manager -- only 29 years old and in his second full season on the job -- walked into Rangers owner Tom Hicks' office and turned into a salesman.

It was May 2007, and Daniels and his staff were busy preparing for the upcoming draft and the July trade deadline. Mark Teixeira, the club's elite first baseman, wasn't likely to re-sign with the Rangers. Daniels knew he had a hot commodity and one that could command value on the trade market.

"We got off to a bad start, and it was real apparent that for us to be successful and compete regularly with New York, Boston, the Angels, teams with resources, we had to beat them in other areas," Daniels said.

So he presented a plan of attack that started with a commitment to younger players, especially high school pitchers, in the draft and trading talented big league pieces, starting with Teixeira, in an effort to rebuild.

"I told Tom, 'There has to be full commitment, and we can't go halfway,'" Daniels said. "Teams that go in between are going to stay there forever. We had to put our resources behind this philosophy. It was a unique opportunity with five first-round picks, an extremely marketable player in Teixeira and others. I said, 'If we're going to do it, now is the time.'"

Hicks gave his blessing, agreeing to a plan that required patience and putting money in other resources, like Latin America, the Pacific Rim and scouting and development.

"I think the Teixeira trade was the tipping point, because it absolutely committed us to a path to build with young players that could be special talents," Hicks said. "It was a great trade for the Rangers."

And one that Daniels, assistant general manager Thad Levine and their staff knew they had to get right. In many ways, some valuable learning experiences early in Daniels' tenure prepared him to make the critical trade that helped jump-start the chain of events that has the Rangers poised to make a serious run at the AL West title in 2010.

Surprise opportunity

As the 2005 season came to a close, one that saw the Rangers finish 79-83 and 16 games out of the division lead, Daniels had no idea he was days away from becoming general manager.

He sat in Hicks' office at The Crescent in downtown Dallas with a group of team officials that included then-general manager John Hart, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser. The purpose of the annual meeting was to dissect the season and start to think about how to approach the offseason.

"John always deferred to me in these meetings to walk through a bunch of information that I had prepared," said Daniels, who was the assistant general manager at the time. "But I remember he was deferring more than I expected. He told me I did a good job and then stayed to meet with Tom and Buck while the rest of us left."

[+] EnlargeJohn Hart, Jon Daniels
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJohn Hart stepped down as Rangers GM in 2005, and one of his last acts was to recommend Jon Daniels as his successor. "It was time to step back and let JD hit the ground running," Hart said.
Daniels went home to pack for a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the Rangers were preparing to open an academy. He received an e-mail from Hicks asking him to consider canceling his trip and meet with him in his office at 10 a.m. the next day. Daniels called Hart to find out what was going on.

"He said, 'I just told Tom I'm going to step down as GM. I recommended you for the job and you're going in to interview,'" Daniels said.

Daniels wasn't sure he even had a suit that fit and had to call around looking for a last-minute tailor to help him. He spent most of the night preparing to convince Hicks that he should make him the youngest GM in baseball at age 28.

"I couldn't really sleep," Daniels said. "I walked my dog at 4 a.m. and had another conversation with somebody that was up and I went into the office to finish preparing. I went to Tom's and we probably spent two or three hours talking. About halfway through, the conversation went from, 'What would you do?' to 'What are you going to do?' I remember thinking he wasn't talking hypothetically anymore."

Hicks offered Daniels the job at the end of the meeting, saying he would pay him something similar to what Theo Epstein got when he landed the Boston Red Sox GM job at a similarly young age.

"JD said, 'I hope you don't think I'm this lousy a negotiator, but I'll take it," Hicks said.

Persistence pays off

For Daniels, the GM job was the culmination of a lot of hard work and determination, going back to his days trying to get an internship in Colorado. Daniels, fresh out of college at Cornell, was working in business development for Allied Domecq, the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts.

But he wanted to work in baseball.

A.J. Preller, a classmate of Daniels' at Cornell and now the Rangers' senior director of player personnel, convinced Daniels to come to the winter meetings with him in Dallas in 2000, the same meetings at which his future boss signed Alex Rodriguez to the 10-year, $252 million contract. Daniels began talking with Josh Byrnes, who was in the Colorado Rockies' front office. He would e-mail Byrnes periodically about things going on in the industry to keep his name fresh in his mind.

"He was persistent," said Byrnes, now the GM in Arizona, and another guy who started as an intern and worked his way up. "We take internships pretty seriously. We got a lot of interesting applicants, but the hardest thing to find is the passion and determination to take on that kind of job. It's like 'American Idol,' where the list gets shorter and some stand out. He clearly stood out."

Daniels' ability to do thorough research and present it in an understandable way helped him move up the ladder. After a year in the Colorado system, Daniels caught the eye of Hart, who hired him for his staff in Texas in 2002. Daniels quickly earned Hart's trust, adding the title of director of baseball operations in October 2003 and assistant general manager less than a year later.

"He was intelligent and worked hard," Hart said. "You could tell he had the attributes that would make a good GM."

Hart had decided after that 2005 season that it was time to go.

"I knew for me that I was somewhat persona non grata," Hart said. "I never had a great relationship with the media in Texas. It was time to step back and let JD hit the ground running. I told Tom that I'd like to give JD a year or two, but there were a lot of young guys doing it. He's a quick learner and he'll keep building a staff that can support him."

Too cautious on Beckett

Almost immediately after Daniels moved into a bigger office at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, he was presented with an intriguing offer. Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria approached Hicks at the owners meetings and told him starter Josh Beckett wanted to go back to Texas.

"He gave me the players they wanted," Hicks said. "He was leaving the country and wanted the deal done before then. There wasn't a lot of time."

[+] EnlargeJon Daniels
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJon Daniels has experienced growing pains as GM. Among his regrets: not pulling the trigger on a deal for Josh Beckett in 2005, and trading Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to San Diego in 2006. "We all would like some mulligans," Tom Hicks said.

The Marlins wanted third baseman Hank Blalock and either Thomas Diamond or John Danks for Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. Florida ended up asking for Danks over Diamond in the package.

"I think Jon got bogged down trying to build a consensus with too many people," Hicks said. "You have to get enough input to make a decision, but he took too long, and the time period for the deal went away."

Hart said Daniels was trying to simply understand his own guys, and the timing was difficult given that it was a big decision so quickly.

"It was trying to balance how much you covet and desire Beckett and not desiring Lowell's money at the time," Hart said. "He was also trying to figure out how the organization felt about Danks. If that happened today, he'd have a complete knowledge of everyone in our system and clearer picture of the economics. I know he wanted to make the deal, but he was being cautious."

Daniels admits that he was slow to pull the trigger. He also didn't understand Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest's style, which is to put his best offer on the table right away. The Marlins ended up dealing with the Red Sox and got Hanley Ramirez as part of the trade.

"I think Jon learned from that," Hicks said. "We all learn from our mistakes, and we all would like some mulligans."

Daniels said every deal is an important learning experience -- good or bad.

"Sometimes you have to experience it to really learn," Daniels said.

He still shakes his head at the trade with San Diego that sent Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres before the 2006 season. The Rangers got a little something from Akinori Otsuka in return, but overall the deal wasn't a good one. Gonzalez is now a solid power hitter with upside at first base for the Padres.

A year later, Daniels traded Danks as part of a deal that brought Brandon McCarthy. So far, McCarthy hasn't been able to stay healthy on a consistent basis. But he's competing for a rotation spot.

"You make bad deals when you feel pressure that you have to do this right now and this is our window and we have to go," Hart said. "Every GM has had his hand burned on a deal. That's just the nature of this business."

Assistant GM Levine said the staff "miscalculated where the club was competitively."

"The natural desire with any new group is to make an impact quickly, and a positive one," Levine said. "We got caught up in that groundswell and made some mistakes. That's when we changed plans."

That led to the May 2007 meeting with Hicks.

Putting it on the line

Daniels was very blunt with Hicks, explaining what putting all the resources of the organization into building up the minor league system and growing from within meant.

"I told him, 'We're going to have to take a step back before taking a step forward,'" Daniels said. "We have to be willing to take our lumps on some levels. We talked about how we needed more talent. We were going to have to out-talent people."

Once the decision was made, Daniels and his staff became aggressive in implementing it. That included the trade of Teixeira in the summer of 2007, after Hicks said the slugger turned down a $140 million offer for eight years.

"That was a defining moment," Levine said. "We had a turnkey decision to make on Teixeira. We made the deal which effectively propelled us down that path which we weren't going to turn back. The plan was one thing, it was theoretical, but the Mark Teixeira trade put it into practice."

The Rangers began shopping Teixeira in earnest in June, seeing what kind of value they might get in return for a player that had a season and a half left before free agency. The list of possible teams was narrowed to five, and Daniels pulled some of his scouts off their regular duties to canvas those systems and make sure every asset was vetted. The Atlanta Braves were the most aggressive team, and the Rangers gave them a list of specific players they wanted to discuss.

"JD knew that system," Hart said. "He sent people to look at everything. The staff was well-prepared."

The Rangers had a few options: They could go for quantity, quality or proximity to the big leagues when it came to prospects. If they wanted both quality and quantity, they had to take some chances on players lower in the system.

"We decided we wanted big upside and quantity and we were willing to wait on it," Daniels said. "Atlanta was in the middle of a pennant race. We weren't going to get guys off their big club. There were only a couple of guys they weren't willing to put in the deal."

In the end, the Rangers got five players for Teixeira and left-handed reliever Ron Mahay. The deal featured catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia; he was the closest to the majors of the players acquired by the Rangers. But the other pieces, including two important teenagers, were critical to completing the deal.

[+] EnlargeJon Daniels, Kasey Kiker
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBeginning with the Mark Teixeira trade, Daniels committed himself to rebuilding the Rangers by stockpiling young prospects through trades (Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison) and the draft (Justin Smoak, Kasey Kiker -- above).

At the time, Elvis Andrus was hitting .244 in Class A and was 18 years old. Neftali Feliz was a relatively unknown hard-throwing 19-year-old in rookie ball. The Rangers also acquired left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison. And because of Harrison's medical situation (he had issues with his throwing shoulder early that season), Daniels got Atlanta to put left-handed pitcher Beau Jones in the deal.

Less than three years later, Saltalamacchia is vying for the starting job at catcher, Andrus is coming off a solid rookie campaign as the starting shortstop, and Feliz wowed everyone with his heater in 2009 and is competing for a rotation spot along with Harrison. It's possible that four of the five players in that deal could be on the major league squad this season.

Staying the course

Daniels and his staff have kept the plan going. Just before that same trade deadline day in 2007, Texas sent Eric Gagne to Boston for LHP Kason Gabbard and outfielders David Murphy and Engel Beltre. Murphy has been a critical part of the Rangers' outfield the past two seasons; Beltre turned 20 in November and is working his way up the system.

Texas kept utilizing the draft to stock the minors. The club selected Justin Smoak with its top pick in 2008 and paid well above slot to get him. They took pitchers Matt Purke and Tanner Scheppers with their top picks in 2009. They didn't get approval from MLB to sign Purke at a number to his liking, but they got Scheppers done.

"I remember thinking that we thought we could rebuild the system and be in contention to win the division somewhere around 2009 to 2012," Daniels said. "At the time, we weren't worried about that. It was about acquiring the best talent. Last year, we moved a little bit from talent acquisition to forming into a cohesive unit, and this year the transition is a quality team that wants to take the next step."

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan (L) and Jon Daniels
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelNolan Ryan knew Daniels needed time in his position to immerse himself in all areas of the organization. "He's done a good job," Ryan said. "He's been a quick learner and has tried to surround himself with very competent people."
That cohesive unit includes the front office, one that has earned Daniels' supreme confidence and praise. Daniels has a reputation for listening to his scouts and trusting their judgment and is not someone with a rather large ego.

"He manages inclusively," said Levine, one of Daniels' first hires after he was named GM. "You have to earn a seat at the decision-making table with Jon. Once you have done that, he taps into you to the fullest extent and gives you a voice. It's not to say he goes with your recommendation, but you are fully involved in the process."

And when a mistake is made by his staff, Daniels shoulders the blame.

His baseball operations inner circle includes club president Nolan Ryan, who shares his opinion and gives guidance when needed. Hicks -- currently in the process of selling the club to an investment group headed by Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Ryan -- considers promoting Daniels and hiring Ryan as two of his most important decisions for the Rangers.

But when Ryan arrived, he didn't know much about Daniels, who played catcher and third base in Little League and was a big New York Mets fan growing up. The two had to figure out the best way to work together and help the franchise move forward. Ryan knew Daniels was still feeling out the job, but he saw a passionate person putting the club first.

"You looked at his résumé and saw how little time he had in the game and the experience he had, and you knew there was going to be some developing time that was needed," Ryan said. "But he's done a good job. He's been a quick learner and has tried to surround himself with very competent people. I think he realized areas he needed support in and strength in, and I think he's gone out and tried to accomplish that."

Search for a manager

The other major job for a GM is hiring a manager. After the 2006 season, Daniels decided the club needed to move in a different direction. He fired Buck Showalter and began the process of finding a new skipper.

Daniels considered on-field strategy when looking at candidates, but he also took into account the personality of his club and the kind of person he wanted leading a young group into the future. He interviewed a handful of candidates, including then-bench coach Don Wakamatsu, who now manages the Seattle Mariners.

"He was very thorough in the interview process," said Wakamatsu, who knew Daniels from his days as an assistant GM. "He picked the guy he thought was the right man for the job. I think at that time he felt, identity-wise, he needed to pick Ron Washington. Looking back, it wasn't the right time for me."

Jon Daniels (R) and Ron Washington
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDaniels liked Ron Washington's honest style from the get-go. The two are enjoying seeing their hard work begin to pay off, as the Rangers are expected to contend for the AL West title this season.
Daniels liked Washington's up-front and honest style and his ability to relate to players. At 54, Washington was a first-time manager of a club trying to rebuild. The Rangers have improved in each of Washington's three seasons on the job, which included his first winning record (87-75) last season.

Confidence through experience

Daniels knows 2010 could be another defining moment for his career. He's gone through the process of trading assets to build up the farm system into one of the best in the major leagues. Now he could be in position to use the young talent he's acquired to give the major league club a boost at the trade deadline.

"If the right deal is out there, we'll make it," Daniels said. "We were tested in that regard at the trade deadline last year. We had the opportunity to do some things, but we didn't find the right deal. Rather than doing something we weren't comfortable with just to close a deal, we decided that we don't need to do a deal to say we did a deal."

Daniels and his staff, learning from previous deals that didn't go well, are confident they can make the moves needed to help the club.

"We're making better decisions today than we made in the past," Levine said. "We're not in self-preservation mode. We focus on making the team better, and that means being aggressive on trades, aggressive in Latin America and other parts of the world and aggressive in the draft. You put yourself in the crosshairs to be scrutinized, but that's fine with our group.

"We made mistakes from the outset. But since we are objective enough to recognize we made those mistakes, we've done everything we can to explore why those mistakes happened and how to avoid them in the future. Everyone, from Jon on down, is better because of it."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.