Jon Daniels quietly fueled Rangers' rise
Texas' 33-year-old GM stuck to a 'plan,' and now has his team in its first ALCS
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jon Daniels became the youngest general manager in Major League Baseball history when Tom Hicks chose him to run the Texas Rangers in 2005. If his transition from 28-year-old wunderkind to 33-year-old executive of the year candidate has driven home one lesson, it's the importance of exploring every conceivable avenue in search of talent.
That basic rule of thumb applies whether a man is running a team on Yawkey Way, the corner of Clark and Addison or just off the Nolan Ryan Expressway.
The Rangers, who'll meet the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night, are a monument to creativity, patience and front-office teamwork. That helps explain why Dallas area sports fans have something to focus on besides Sunday's Cowboys-Vikings game -- and Daniels will be watching baseball from an upstairs booth in Arlington on Friday rather than checking out prospects and cultivating a tan in the Arizona instructional league.
"I think the biggest thing is, we believed in our plan," Daniels said Thursday. "But more than the plan, we believed in our people. Our plan isn't rocket science. We're not the first team that said, 'Hey, let's build from within.' We've had success to this point because our evaluators are good. Our scouts are good. Our development people are good. They care, and they put the work in. I like to think we have a very clear idea of who we are and what our identity is."
It's easy for a soft-spoken franchise architect to get lost in the shuffle given the leadership dynamic in Texas. Team president Nolan Ryan is an imposing figure whether he's pumping his fist in the front row or pitching lawn care products for Lowe's, and manager Ron Washington makes for an uplifting tale of redemption. Washington easily could have been fired after revelations of cocaine use surfaced in spring training. But the Rangers stuck by him, and Washington led the team to its first playoff berth in 11 years and the first postseason series victory in franchise history.
As for Daniels, he has a compelling story of his own to tell, even if he's not much for self-aggrandizement. There's nothing like a few shrewd trades and some astute free-agent signings to help a young front-office executive go from "overmatched" to "budding Pat Gillick."
Flash back 3½ years, and Daniels wasn't exactly baseball's flavor of the month. In his first significant move as Texas GM, he sent Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to San Diego for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. In his second, he traded John Danks to the Chicago White Sox for Brandon McCarthy. He was like a hitter down 0-2 in the count and trying to foul off Mariano Rivera cutters amid the shadows.
But in 2007, Daniels sold Hicks on "the plan"-- a commitment to long-term building through the draft, Latin America and all other available sources -- and the Rangers have since enjoyed a stunning run of success:
The foundation for Texas' turnaround was laid at the July 2007 trade deadline, when Daniels sent Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves in a seven-player deal that brought pitcher Neftali Feliz and shortstop Elvis Andrus to the Rangers. Feliz saved 40 games this year and is a top candidate for AL Rookie of the Year, and Andrus has become a fixture at shortstop at age 22. Teixeira, now two stops removed from Atlanta, will be playing first base and batting third for the Yankees in Game 1.
Daniels also stole outfielder David Murphy from Boston for Eric Gagne in a deadline deal in '07, and added a bigger piece five months later when he acquired outfielder Josh Hamilton from Cincinnati for pitcher Edinson Volquez. Hamilton led the majors in batting (.359) and slugging (.633) this season and probably will win the American League MVP award even though he missed most of September with a rib injury.
Most of Daniels' moves this year were of the functional variety. The Rangers signed starter Colby Lewis out of Japan, made a one-year, $6.5 million bet on a Vladimir Guerrero comeback, and picked up Bengie Molina at midseason when they ran out of catchers. And then, as July rolled along and they could smell the postseason, Daniels took the plunge and acquired pitching ace Cliff Lee from Seattle in a six-player trade. Considering the Rangers were in bankruptcy at the time, they were not most people's first guess to spirit Lee away from the Mariners.
I've got a great job; this is a tremendous organization; and I get to work with great people. I don't even want to be part of the story.” -- Jon Daniels
Taken as a whole, the moves have helped remake the Rangers from a hitting-first organization to a more well-rounded group. These aren't your older brother's Juan Gonzalez-and-Pudge Rodriguez Rangers, who were destined to go as far as their slugging could take them:
• In 2005, the Rangers ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.96 ERA. This year, they finished tied for third at 3.93.
• The 2005 Rangers were ninth in the AL with 67 stolen bases. This year, they were fifth with 123. Aggressive baserunning paid major dividends in Game 5 of the ALDS, when Andrus, Nelson Cruz and Guerrero helped manufacture runs to send Tampa Bay home for the winter.
• Five years ago, the Rangers were 26th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings, which measure the rate at which teams convert balls in play into outs. This season, they were sixth.
Two years ago, Daniels and Washington took a bold stand and shifted veteran shortstop and team leader Michael Young to third base to make room for Andrus. The change wasn't handled as tactfully as it should have been, but everybody now agrees that it was an astute call.
"I never doubted that they had a plan," Young said. "The only thing everybody regrets is that it came out publicly. We could have butted heads behind closed doors all day long, and that would have been fine. It got out, but about two days after that, I got on board. It was definitely the best move for our team. We've been a good team the last two years in large part because of it."
No matter what the decision, Daniels' first instinct is to deflect personal accolades and cite the input of assistant GM Thad Levine, farm director Scott Servais and the rest of his support team. During the division series, Daniels invited about 100 Rangers scouts and player development people to Arlington so they could attend a reception and be recognized on the field before Game 3 against Tampa Bay. It's convenient for old-school baseball types to characterize Daniels, a Cornell graduate, as a new-breed stat geek, but that's not even close to accurate.
"Everybody wants to pigeonhole executives: You're a 'scouting guy' or a 'stat guy,'" said A.J. Preller, Texas' senior director of player personnel and a former Daniels classmate at Cornell. "The bottom line is, JD has such a good feel for it. Scouting is the most important piece of the puzzle, and he'll fill in with the stats. Just look at the Mark Teixeira trade. We traded a perennial All-Star and didn't get back pieces of the puzzle with huge track records. Almost all the deals he's made have been scout-type deals."
Daniels is also a big believer in cultivating an inclusive clubhouse atmosphere. It's no accident that Hamilton and Milton Bradley thrived in Texas after coming over with personal baggage or unique personal circumstances. On Thursday, Washington emotionally recalled how Daniels stood by him when he was under siege in spring training. Washington used the phrase "I love him" three times in a two-sentence span in reference to Daniels.
"When I experienced my problem, he didn't judge me," Washington said. "He supported me, and I could never say enough about that support. When you're a manager, a lot of times you get hired to get fired. And whenever that time comes -- and I hope it's a long time in the future -- I hope that I can always have him as a friend."
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In recent weeks, Daniels' name has come up in speculation as a potential candidate for the New York Mets' general manager job. Daniels is under contract for 2011, but has the ability to explore other options as part of an agreement he made with Hicks in anticipation of a potential ownership change. Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg's group took control of the Rangers in August, and Greenberg has said he plans to keep Daniels in Texas.
Those big-city ties die hard. Daniels was born in New York City, grew up a Mets and Lenny Dykstra fan, and was one euphoric fourth-grader when Mookie Wilson's groundball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. But while the Mets have been busy interviewing Sandy Alderson, Rick Hahn, Allard Baird and Josh Byrnes for their vacant GM job, Daniels has a lot more pressing concerns on his mind. The Mets have not asked for permission to talk to him, and Daniels sounds like a man who's very much at home in Dallas.
"I've got a great job; this is a tremendous organization; and I get to work with great people," Daniels said. "I don't even want to be part of the story."
Nevertheless, Daniels concedes that his mother was quite excited to hear his name mentioned in conjunction with the Mets' gig.
"I'm friends with a couple of other guys who've been interviewing [with the Mets]," Daniels said. "So I texted them and told them if they want to go over for some meatloaf after their interviews, my mom would love to have them."
At the moment, Jon Daniels' personal schedule calls for two American League Championship Series games in Arlington this weekend, followed by a trip back to his hometown for Game 3 on Monday. The meatloaf dinner can wait.
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