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Filling Texas-sized roster holes

11/16/2006 - Texas Rangers

NAPLES, Fla. -- Jon Daniels notices a distinct difference between these general managers' meetings and his first go-round in Palm Springs, Calif., last November.

"This year people aren't writing that 'How is your first GM meetings' story," he said. "That element has gone away a little bit."

Daniels' colleagues didn't make him stand on a table and sing the Cornell fight song after he replaced John Hart as Texas general manager in October 2005. But he was a mere 28 years old, the youngest GM in baseball history, and the challenge was every bit as daunting as he envisioned.

It stood to reason that this winter would be calmer. Scratch that assumption.

After assessing the state of the Texas clubhouse, Daniels fired manager Buck Showalter and replaced him with Oakland coach Ron Washington. Now he has to reshape a roster that could potentially lose eight players to free agency. No wonder he's been getting up at 7 a.m. and shutting it down at 1 a.m., without so much as a fitness room break in between.

The Chicago Cubs, in player acquisition overdrive as they try to build a contender under new manager Lou Piniella, have been the most active team during these meetings, and Toronto made news by shelling out roughly $10 million a year for designated hitter Frank Thomas.

But when it comes to multiple scenarios and filling in pieces of the puzzle, few teams face a more intriguing challenge than the Rangers.

At the moment, Kevin Millwood and Robinson Tejeda are the only sure things in the Texas rotation for 2007. Daniels is still talking to the representatives for Vicente Padilla and Adam Eaton, but in this crazy market, it looks as if both pitchers will get three- or four-year deals, with an annual price tag in the $8 million to $10 million neighborhood.

Daniels also wants to re-sign center fielder Gary Matthews Jr., fresh off a breakout season in Arlington. If that doesn't happen, the Rangers will look at other free agents (such as Dave Roberts, Jay Payton and Kenny Lofton) or trade possibilities (Aaron Rowand and Brian Anderson, to name two). With Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter both expected to hit the market next winter, Texas might wait to make a bigger splash in 2007.

Finally, there's the DH spot. After coming up short in a bid to sign Thomas, Daniels is ready to assess the alternatives. The market is rich in veteran bats (Mike Piazza, Cliff Floyd, Aubrey Huff, David Dellucci, Ray Durham, Nomar Garciaparra and Frank Catalanotto, among others), so he has plenty of choices.

Here are three things that won't be happening in Texas: The Rangers won't sign Barry Bonds. They almost certainly won't be dipping into their stash of young pitching to pursue Cincinnati's Adam Dunn. And they have zero interest in entertaining offers for Mark Teixeira, who will become very expensive when he's eligible for free agency in two years.

Conceptually, Daniels wants to change things in Texas from the ground floor. That includes making a bigger push in Latin America and in scouting and player development. The Rangers brought back respected scout Don Welke last month, and have A.J. Preller, their talented young international scouting director, working hard to unearth talent in the Dominican Republic and other baseball hotbeds.

Daniels also wants to change the perception of the Rangers from an organization that lives and dies -- mostly dies -- with its offense. Last year Texas ranked a respectable eighth in the American League in ERA at 4.60.

"I've heard so many times back home, with our local media and fans, 'When are the Rangers going to get pitching?' " Daniels said. "We've been disciplined to the point where we've developed a good group of guys. They still have to get over the hump, but we've brought them this far, and we need to continue to develop these guys."

"He killed himself for us for four years and we're better for it. But any time you make a change in a visible spot, whatever the new person brings, they give a little boost to the organization."
-- GM Jon Daniels on Buck Showalter


Still, the question lingers: How good are the pitchers in the Texas pipeline? Top prospect Edinson Volquez got crushed (1-6 with a 7.29 ERA) in an eight-game audition with the big club last season. Scouts like his arm, but have questions about his breaking ball and mound savvy. And former No. 1 pick Thomas Diamond is now viewed as more of a bottom-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever than an impact guy in the rotation.

The Rangers still have high hopes for John Danks, their first-round pick in 2003, and Eric Hurley. But Danks is only 21, and Hurley needs more time after splitting last season between Class A Bakersfield, Calif., and Double-A Frisco, Texas.

Daniels ensured that the clubhouse dynamic will be different in 2007 when he replaced Showalter with Washington. It was his call, not owner Tom Hicks' decision, and a concession that Showalter's micromanagerial approach was no longer the right fit.

"Nothing against Buck," Daniels said. "He killed himself for us for four years and we're better for it. But any time you make a change in a visible spot, whatever the new person brings, they give a little boost to the organization.

"It wasn't any one particular issue. Buck is much more experienced than I am and he's a tremendous baseball man. But when we sat back and looked at where we needed to go, I felt we needed a change in leadership in the clubhouse and the organization. Ron has brought that to us."

Washington, who was hugely popular with players as an Athletics coach, is currently in California meeting with Texas players and helping court free agents. Meanwhile, Daniels and assistant GM Thad Levine are plugging away in a sleep-deprived world in Naples. They're talking trade, staying in touch with agents, and trying to find order amid the chaos now that the serious money has begun flying.

"At some point you need to have a calmer offseason," Daniels said, "but I knew what this job was when I took it. I think we're at least a year away from that."

Next year Daniels will be 30, and people will stop asking him how it feels to be a general manager at 29. He can take comfort in that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.