Commentary

Rangers were built by sticking to plan

Focus on development, shrewd moves keyed climb to top of Future Power Rankings

Originally Published: February 16, 2012
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Texas Rangers are now one of the elite organizations in Major League Baseball. And ESPN.com believes they are set up to stay there, naming the Rangers the No. 1 club in its Future Power Rankings.

Ascending to the level of an annual contender took careful planning, shrewd investments in scouting and development, a well-executed trade of a key player and some good fortune.

As with any company, key decisions along the way helped pave a path to success. Here's a look at some of the pivotal points along the journey:

Learning from early mistakes

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
AP Photo/Linda KayeGetting little in return for Adrian Gonzalez was an early misstep by Rangers GM Jon Daniels.
When former owner Tom Hicks named Jon Daniels the general manager of the Texas Rangers in October 2005, then the youngest GM in the game at 28, Daniels had to immediately jump into his first offseason in charge.

An offer came days into his tenure involving a deal for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell from the Florida Marlins. Daniels wasn't ready to make a deal and the Marlins moved on, trading both players to the Boston Red Sox. Daniels was still learning the styles of owners and GMs and admits he was slow to make a decision.

A few months later, Daniels traded Adrian Gonzalez, who was blocked by Mark Teixeira at first base, and pitcher Chris Young to San Diego. The deal didn't net any any great tangible return for the Rangers.

"The big thing was when you look at those mistakes, they weren't part of a more comprehensive, big-picture plan," Daniels said. "When we realized that, we were able to step back, reassess where we were and do a better job of planning for the future."

Hiring Ron Washington

Daniels decided after the 2006 season, his first on the job, that a change was needed in the dugout and in the clubhouse. He selected Ron Washington to replace Buck Showalter and did so primarily because he felt Washington's energy and attitude were contagious and the former Oakland A's third base coach knew how to teach young players.

For where the Rangers were in their development, it was an important choice. Washington stressed fundamentals, especially on defense. He sought out a versatile offense. It took time for the club to figure out how to get there, but Washington was patient.

So was Daniels. When the club got off to a slow start in 2008, Washington didn't panic even though there were some who thought he wasn't going to make it to the All-Star break. The club started winning and Washington has never looked back.

Washington has grown with the club and the result is a team that stays loose but plays extremely hard for him.

"We loved the energy, the passion, the 24/7 positive mentality. But more than that, he fit what we were about," Daniels said. "He was excited about having the ability to teach, continue the development at the big-league level. He wanted players with upside and ability and understood there was a process.

"When you're talking about the backbone of the organization being scouts and player development, it's huge for them to hear the manager is on the same page. It was a perfect fit for us."

Taking a step back to make a leap forward

Daniels and his staff analyzed the club from top to bottom and knew that scouting and development held the key to future success. The farm system wasn't full of solid prospects and Daniels felt, with a budget that wasn't going to compete with Boston's or New York's, that the only way to get ahead was to do a better job scouting players and building the minor leagues.

So, in May 2007, Daniels told Hicks that the club had to "take a step back before taking a step forward."

He made a detailed presentation to Hicks and convinced the owner that for the long-term health of the organization, the club had to rebuild the minor leagues. That meant being willing to trade some of its current stars.

"The easy part is saying we're going to build from within and invest in the infrastructure," Daniels said. "The hard part is sticking to it when the sky is falling, when you've got to trade a popular big-league player, when you're getting kicked at the big-league level. It made the decision-making process easier. It was such a clear direction, clear plan, it was easy to say, 'That fits the plan or it doesn't.' That eliminated the forks in the road."

Hicks signed off on the plan, allowing Daniels to allocate more funds toward scouting and development in the Dominican Republic. Not long after that, the club opened a Pacific Rim operation and kept hiring more scouts so that they were fully armed and ready on both the amateur side with the draft and the professional side with trade possibilities.

Mark Teixeira brings back a bounty

The Rangers knew the biggest trading piece they had was Mark Teixeira, who presented the club with a unique opportunity. The first baseman had 1 1/2 years left on his contract as the trade deadline approached in 2007. Daniels knew that to get maximum value, he needed to strike a deal to a contending club and sell them on the fact that they'd get Teixeira for two pennant runs, not just one.

"It was a big moment for us," Daniels said.

The GM found a willing organization in the Atlanta Braves, searching for a big bat to help them make a postseason run. Daniels and his staff scoured the Braves' farm system and decided they'd rather try to grab lower-level prospects with higher ceilings than players closer to the major leagues.

The headliner in the deal was catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but Daniels was more concerned with some of the minor leaguers he picked up in rookie ball or Class A. Two in particular: Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz.

[+] EnlargeElvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezShortstop Elvis Andrus and pitcher Neftali Feliz were two of the young pieces acquired for Mark Teixeira.

Andrus, then 18, showed great promise defensively and had tremendous speed, but he wasn't hitting the ball well in Class A. Feliz, 19, had the triple-digit fastball but lacked consistent control. That's just what you'd expect from teenage players. The club believed when the trade was made that both had a chance to become stalwarts on a contending team. But they were raw and relatively unknown then.

The Rangers also took a chance on Matt Harrison, despite some concerns about his throwing shoulder.

"The things we had put in place came together -- how we structured the scouting department by putting the international, amateur and professional scouts together -- and that we were willing to take some risk and grab players with upside," Daniels said. "I'm not sure we would have picked the players we did if we all weren't together and constantly sharing information. We had a background on each player. We didn't want safe, generic guys. We were willing to take guys that would require some patience and development."

Less than two years later, Andrus was starting at shortstop after Michael Young moved to third and Harrison was in the rotation on Opening Day. Andrus has stayed at shortstop ever since and Harrison battled injury issues and struggles until sticking in the rotation for good in 2011.

Feliz got a taste of the majors in 2009 and was AL Rookie of the Year in 2010 after what was then a rookie-record 40 saves. He comes to spring training this year as a member of the starting rotation.

The Teixeira trade was big, but the Rangers made other deals to help stock the minor leagues and improve the big league club that same year. An important move was trading Eric Gagne to the Red Sox for Engel Beltre and David Murphy.

Trading for Josh Hamilton

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaRangers scouts who said Josh Hamilton had the potential to win an MVP were proven correct.

It was not an easy call to swap Edinson Volquez, a top-ranked pitching prospect, for Josh Hamilton prior to the 2008 season. But as Daniels and his staff discussed the possibility of making the trade with the Cincinnati Reds, several of the club's scouts and front-office folks kept coming back to one thing: Hamilton was an impact player at the plate and in the field.

"I remember some of the guys in the room saying he had a chance to win the MVP," Daniels said. "We weren't counting on that, but we felt he had that kind of talent and we were willing to take the chance."

They did, despite not having a bunch of major league-ready pitching prospects at the time.

"People talk about drafting for need," Daniels said. "I think it fits in the same boat. You don't draft a certain position and bypass the better player. We needed pitching, but we needed star-level talent and impact-level talent."

Hamilton won the MVP in 2010 and has become a centerpiece in the middle of the lineup.

Nolan Ryan becomes president

Just before spring training began in 2008, Hicks hired Ryan as president of the club. The Hall of Famer would oversee Daniels and the baseball staff but also have a hand in how the club's business was run. Ryan's extensive experience in owning minor league teams and his success on the field gave him instant credibility with fans and players.

Ryan didn't come in and make a bunch of changes right away. He observed and then made certain moves he thought necessary. But one thing he made clear was that it was time for pitchers to give the club an extra out or an additional inning. He didn't want coaches or players overly concerned with pitch counts. He wanted pitchers to understand the amount of work it took to start and to push themselves to not only have success and pitch deeper, but to stay healthy.

The approach has certainly paid dividends as the club has developed some solid pitchers in recent years and has seen its starters have the stamina to go deeper into games.

But more than the pitching philosophy, Ryan gives the baseball operations staff an experienced voice that's been around the game for a lifetime.

He has supported Daniels' plan to rebuild the Rangers and is now the CEO as one of the team's owners. He's the conduit between the ownership group and the club and one of the main faces of the organization.

"At the time Nolan came in, the front office didn't have the track record that we may today," Daniels said. "Nolan came in with an independent viewpoint and, in a lot of ways, verified what we were doing. It gave a level of credibility to the plan and the operation. On top of that, he's a good baseball man in his own right. He wasn't just there to sign off on what we were doing. He was there to contribute and add to it, and he does that every day."

Investing in the draft

Besides spending additional capital on scouts to help canvas the country for amateur talent, Daniels used a larger part of his budget to pay above slot for Justin Smoak, who dropped to the Rangers at No. 11 in the 2008 draft in large part because he wanted a big signing bonus.

They made shrewd picks in a variety of rounds, adding to the minor-league crop, and publications that grade farm systems took note. The Rangers began climbing the minor-league rankings. It was a sign that they were acquiring talent and that while it might still take some time, they were moving in the direction Daniels wanted.

"Our goal is never to sit here and think, 'How can we go above slot?' But we recognize there are times when it's the right thing," Daniels said. "We were fortunate that we had, and now have, an ownership group that's on board with that. On top of that, we've been able to expand the department."

Trading for Cliff Lee

The Rangers had assembled enough young pieces with a sprinkling of veterans to become contenders in 2010. They led the AL West, a division they hadn't won since 1999, as the calendar flipped to July.

That's when Daniels began using that deep and talented farm system to give his big league club some reinforcements. Lee was the best pitcher on the market and Seattle was ready to deal him as a second-half rental for a contending team. Three years after the Rangers sent Teixeira to Atlanta to build their farm system, they were in the position of needing a boost for a postseason run.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Noah K. Murray/US PresswireCliff Lee's presence helped the Rangers reach their first World Series.

When it became apparent that the deal wasn't going to happen unless the switch-hitting Smoak was included, Daniels made the decision to put one of his prized prospects in the deal to get a difference-maker on the mound.

"As much positive public reaction as there was, that was the most excited, internally, we'd been," Daniels said.

The Rangers don't get Lee without having a piece like Smoak, which lured the Mariners toward the Rangers' package over an offer from the Yankees.

Lee wasn't acquired for the regular season. He was obtained to give the club an ace when the playoffs began. Lee was critical in the Rangers' beating the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2010 American League Division Series, the franchise's first playoff series victory. He loomed large over the AL Championship Series against the Yankees despite not pitching until Game 3. He won that game, helping the Rangers to their first World Series berth.

The Rangers likely don't even get out of the first round without Lee, making the trade a success. It helped them jump over a big hurdle and allowed them to make a deep postseason run, something critical to the long-term maturation process for the organization.

"We had talked about building things and there it was in action," Daniels said. "We were able to trade for, arguably, the best pitcher in the game."

Acquiring Mike Napoli

Daniels is the first to admit that no one with the club expected the kind of second half of 2011 that Napoli produced.

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
Kim Klement/US PresswireMike Napoli went on what Rangers general manager Jon Daniels called "the longest hot streak I've ever seen" in the second half and postseason of 2011.

"He got on the longest hot streak I've ever seen," Daniels said.

It continued through the playoffs. Napoli hit .383 after the All-Star break and likely would have been the MVP of the World Series had the Rangers won it.

Daniels was at a banquet in New York when he heard the Los Angeles Angels had traded Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of the Vernon Wells deal and immediately sent Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous a message that the Rangers were interested in Napoli.

A few days later, Frank Francisco was shipped to Toronto for Napoli, then listed as the No. 3 catcher on the depth chart and someone who could play first base against left-handed pitching. By the end of spring, Napoli was the backup catcher. He played his way into the lead spot and caught most of the club's postseason games.

"That's a case of being lucky and good," Daniels said. "Our scouts felt he was a better defender than he'd gotten credit for and we knew he'd bring certain things offensively. No one could have forecasted he would hit .320 and tear the cover off the ball the way he did."

Bidding for Yu Darvish

After scouting the Japanese pitcher for more than a few years, the Rangers determined he was the best starting pitcher on the market. They didn't want to trade prospects for available starters, so Daniels and the baseball staff pushed for Darvish.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/LM OteroThe Rangers trusted their scouting system enough to be comfortable making a large investment to acquire Yu Darvish.

Ryan decided that a handful of key baseball operations employees should make the presentation to ownership. They made two presentations -- one to each of the co-chairmen of the board, Ray Davis and Bob Simpson -- and ownership decided to make the $51.7 million investment as a posting bid.

Then the Rangers spent another $60 million to sign Darvish. It was a calculated risk based on trusting the club's scouts.

"I don't think we bid on Darvish without doing some of the other things in the past few years," Daniels said. "We'd tested our decision-making process on some smaller things and we felt good enough about it that we refined the process enough that our people had made enough good calls that we were comfortable doing it on a bigger scale, and ownership supported us.

"You don't go out and spend $100 million on that type of acquisition unless there's a track record."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

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