By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Texas has failed to land a much-needed ace for its pitching staff, signing Chan Ho Park and Millwood for a combined $125 million. Meanwhile, young starters Edinson Volquez, John Danks, Chris Young and Armando Galarraga have been shipped off to find success elsewhere.
The losses of A-Rod and Pudge and the contract awarded to Park can be blamed on former GM John Hart, but the rest falls squarely at the feet of Daniels.
In order to resuscitate the franchise, Daniels must get his own career off life support. His future is tied to a crop of talent including Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland, who are ready to prove themselves. While Andrus won't turn this team into a winner single-handedly, his arrival signifies the beginning of a new era in Arlington.
Daniels just might be on to something. The 31-year-old GM, who looks like he could be one of the Rangers' young up-and-comers, has quickly turned the Rangers farm system into the best in baseball. Just two years ago, Baseball America, the Bible for baseball junkies seeking the latest info on the next wave of superstars, ranked the Rangers farm system 28th out of 30 teams. The publication gave the Rangers the largest bump in its history by rating it No. 4 in 2008, and this year it ranked Texas No. 1.
John Manuel, co-editor-in-chief of Baseball America, says since Daniels changed directions in 2007, his moves have been defensible and consistent. When a team goes back and forth between philosophies and fails to identify a long-term strategy, he says, it leads to bad contracts and trades.
"It's the old Seinfeld joke about Oprah Winfrey: Pick a body and stick with it," he says.
Daniels' previous attempt to win at the major league level while simultaneously amassing talent in the minors caused him to overpay to keep Young, says Manuel. "You feel like you have to keep the face of the franchise because you're not confident you can come up with a new one. Now I feel like they're going to have a lot of faces of the franchise coming up."
Wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue cap and white uniform pants, pitching prospect Neftali Feliz stretches about 15 feet behind the shortstop position at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on a 47-degree morning in January. Daniels refers to him as "one of our best young arms," and Baseball America ranks the right-hander as the top Rangers prospect.
Today, Feliz is one of 18 young pitchers scheduled to throw to three catchers during a weeklong winter development camp. There were supposed to be 19 pitchers, but 2004 first-round pick Eric Hurley is scheduled to have rotator cuff surgery the following day, essentially making him unavailable for the season.
The players who have taken the field are the culmination of a plan to rebuild the Rangers from the ground up. The combination of an abysmal start to the '07 season, the rebuilding of its Latin American scouting program, having five first-round picks in the '07 draft and Teixeira's unwillingness to entertain a contract extension led to Daniels committing Hicks to this new philosophy in May 2007.
Feliz watches Brandon McCarthy, last year's poster boy for injuries, throw in front of new pitching coach Mike Maddux, with the sound of concrete blasting through a metal pipe as the soundtrack. Workers are installing new seats behind home plate as part of a $4 million renovation of the stadium.
Unlike other players spread throughout the field, Feliz stands alone. He makes pitching motions, simulating his delivery as he prepares to take the mound for the first time. Maddux, Ron Washington and Nolan Ryan await their first look at the Dominican flamethrower.
When Feliz steps on the rubber, most people take notice, although Ryan is busy just a few feet away, instructing pitcher Tommy Hunter and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Feliz flashes a smile down to catcher Taylor Teagarden, who joins Feliz on virtually every top 10 prospect list for the Rangers.
He begins his throwing motion, which onlookers repeatedly describe as "effortless," and fires in a high fastball with his arm emerging from a three-quarters slot. The ball snaps hard into the mitt—a strike.
McCarthy compares watching Feliz on the mound to the awe inspired by outfielder Josh Hamilton when he takes batting practice. "It doesn't look like he's trying. It kinda pisses me off," he says. "He could throw 110 [mph] if he tried. The way it explodes out of his hand is really something special."
When the session is over, Maddux takes the ball from Feliz and shakes his hand. Feliz walks down to Teagarden for a handshake and a chest bump. The show is over.
It doesn't look as if there's much the 6-foot-3-inch, 180-pounder can't do on the mound. But to be an impact player in the big leagues, he still needs work on his secondary pitches and control. Pity the player who gets hit by his fastball, which reached 102 mph last season. Feliz could be making his major league debut sometime near the All-Star break if he keeps progressing the way he has since Daniels snagged him from the Braves as a raw arm in the Teixeira trade.