The Hapless Texas Rangers Turn to their Farm System
It's a cold Thursday night in mid-January, and two police SUVs pull up in front of an Academy Sports and Outdoors store in North Richland Hills, an otherwise peaceful community between Dallas and Fort Worth. The squad cars represent protection for a group of Texas Rangers players and executives preparing to address more than 100 fans jammed into a space between the checkout lanes and exercise equipment. It's one of several stops on the organization's Winter Caravan tour throughout Texas and Oklahoma—the same PR tour conducted annually to drum up excitement for a team that generates little of its own on the field.
Rangers ace Kevin Millwood is here, along with young left-hander Matt Harrison, Rangers Hall of Famer Jim Sundberg and TV color commentator Tom Grieve, but if a show of force is necessary, it's there to protect Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. For it was Daniels who declared in a December meeting with Michael Young that it was time to push aside the five-time All-Star and hand over the shortstop job to Elvis Andrus, a 20-year-old wunderkind who hasn't played an inning above Double-A in the minors.
For a team able to manage only one season with a record above .500 since its last playoff appearance in 1999 and one that drew fewer than 2 million fans for the first time in 13 years, this news wasn't going to energize its fan base. Only Britney Spears could rebound from this much bad publicity. And Young demanded to be traded, submitting a list of teams for which he was willing to waive his no-trade clause to get the heck outta Arlington.
When Daniels sits before the North Richland Hills crowd, he is ready for all would-be attackers. Certainly someone will be ballsy enough to ask him how he could insist that the team's marquee player move positions for a kid who's not even old enough to drink a beer. Hadn't Young already taken one for the team when he moved from second base to short in 2004 to make room for Alfonso Soriano? Surely someone will want to know how, with the Rangers history of alienating fans through botched trades and laughable free-agent contracts, Daniels could bully the face of the franchise to play third base, a position he had no experience playing.
But Daniels comes prepared. Just hours before he faces the crowd, he learns that Young has called Rangers president Nolan Ryan and rescinded his trade request. He has agreed to switch positions, again, and Daniels tells the crowd as much. Resounding applause follows.
But later, long-time season-ticket holder Biff Liebbe has a question for Daniels about Andrus: "My concern is that he had 32 errors at Double-A...so how do you make us, the fans, feel a little bit better about moving a premium infielder to third base?"
Again Daniels appears ready, his Cornell-educated mind a veritable database for baseball stats that he can log onto at will. He rattles off the names of shortstops like Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Edgar Renteria, who were promoted to the big leagues at about the same age as Andrus; then he lists the number of errors they made in the minors and the number of Gold Gloves they eventually won in the majors. And if that's not enough to satisfy the skeptics, Daniels adds that first basemen in the majors tend to save infielders from committing errors because of their ability to pick throws out of the dirt; major league fields are better quality than minor league fields; and there's simply a different focus level in the bigs.
"We feel like he'll make some special plays along with the routine plays," he says confidently. "He's 20 years old, and he's gonna make mistakes, but over time, in short order, we believe he's going to be an asset to the organization and help us win games."
The fans seemed as impressed as they were appeased.
The Young drama provides a close look at the radical change in philosophy that Daniels has recently brought to the organization. After becoming baseball's youngest GM at 28, Daniels sought to trade his way to the top by pulling the trigger on three major deals in his first year to acquire veterans, along with handing out a $60 million contract to Millwood.
He also made sure to keep Michael Young in Arlington long-term when he signed him to a five-year, $80 million contract extension in March 2007. But just two months into the '07 season, Texas was 19-35, and Daniels met with owner Tom Hicks, promoting an entirely new strategy of rebuilding the team by developing talent from within its farm system and dealing away key veterans at the trade deadline to jumpstart the process.
Young was as miffed about the sea change then as he is now. "I've been through rebuilding, and I'm not receptive to it in any way, shape or form," Young told the Dallas Observer in July 2007. "I don't want to be patient. I want to win now."
Since Young joined the Rangers in 2001, the team has traded away superstars Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Soriano and allowed fan favorites Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Gary Matthews Jr. to sign elsewhere as free agents.
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.
"The talent is not a surprise. We knew that was there," Daniels says. "We've been very pleased with how mature he is, how he's handled what we've thrown at him, how he's made adjustments and how he's really embraced some of our coaches. And that's in large part the reason why he's moved as quickly as he has."
John Sickels, author of the annual Baseball Prospect Book and former ESPN columnist, ranks Feliz as the second-best pitching prospect in baseball next to Tampa Bay Rays southpaw David Price. He expects Feliz to begin this year at Double-A Frisco, where he spent part of last season, and then move on to Triple-A Oklahoma before getting the call-up to Texas.
"I love Feliz. He's got maybe the best arm and pure fastball in the minor leagues," he says. "If he stays healthy, and that's always a big if with any young pitcher, I think he could be a No. 1 starter."
Feliz, who won 10 games with a 2.69 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings combined at Class A Clinton and Double-A Frisco last season, says Ryan has been teaching him how to throw his fastball on the outside corner and mix it with throwing his slider low and away.
Considering he doesn't turn 21 until May, Feliz appears uncharacteristically calm for someone receiving advice from a Hall of Famer and named the team's No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
"I don't feel pressure," he says through a translator. "I just give thanks to God for being in this position and try to take advantage of it."
After the rest of the pitchers throw, the players head to the locker room for lunch and a team meeting. Fellow southpaws Derek Holland and Kasey Kiker take a seat as sub sandwiches are handed out and the inauguration of Barack Obama plays on TVs in the background.
As Holland is approached by a reporter, the other young pitchers get the 22-year-old to crack a smile by yelling "Oh, Derek!" in their best girlie voices.
Holland, a 25th-round selection in the 2006 draft, was one of the biggest breakout players in baseball last season with a 13-1 record, 2.27 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 150 2/3 innings combined at three minor league stops. The velocity on his fastball jumped from 90-93 mph in the spring into the mid-90s by summer, even occasionally touching 98.
Randy Putman, Holland's coach at Wallace State Community College, describes him as a fierce competitor who's confident and was instrumental as a leader at Wallace State. "Every time he went to the mound, we knew we were going to win because he was going to lay it on the line like it was the seventh game of the World Series," he says. "It bothered him not just to lose a game but to give up a hit."
Holland and Feliz formed a dangerous one-two punch last season at Frisco, the Rangers farm club that was named minor league team of the year by Baseball America. Holland says he looks forward to battling Feliz for the top spot in the Rangers rotation, but he stresses that there are plenty of other good pitchers in the organization with whom he is prepared to compete.
Credit for the deep pool of arms in the minors goes to Daniels, says Jamey Newberg, author of The Newberg Report, an online newsletter chronicling the Rangers minor league system. Newberg says Daniels has been "extremely impressive" and believes other executives around the league would agree.
"Some of the general media in town pick out a couple of sound bites off his track record and complain about what he's done, but he's got tremendous respect in the league," he says. "You can't show me a GM who hasn't had a couple trades over the past three years he wouldn't take back."
Tom Hicks' 2005 decision to hire the untested 28-year-old Daniels seemed the desperate act of an owner following the latest trend to shake up a stagnant ball club: hiring young, overeducated nerds as GM. Before Daniels, Theo Epstein held the title of youngest GM in baseball history when the Boston Red Sox hired him at age 28 in 2002. Epstein, also an Ivy League grad, built a team that brought a World Series championship to Boston in 2004 for the first time in 86 years. Like Daniels, whose career began as an intern for the Colorado Rockies, Epstein rose up the organizational flow chart with amazing speed after beginning his career in public relations with the San Diego Padres. Unlike Epstein, Daniels hasn't delivered so much as a playoff appearance.
Daniels wasted no time making his mark on the franchise—unfortunately it was a black mark. Only two months after he was hired, he traded Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for Brad Wilkerson and Armando Galarraga. Soriano had refused to move to the outfield to make room for second baseman Ian Kinsler, yet Soriano did just that when asked by Nationals manager Frank Robinson, and went on to hit a career-high 46 home runs in the 2006 season. Wilkerson was nothing short of a disaster with 73 more strikeouts than hits in his two seasons in Texas, and Galarraga was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 2008 for a minor league outfielder who was subsequently released.
Less than three months into the job, Daniels committed the team to a trade that ended whatever honeymoon he had with the media and fans. To the Padres, he dealt away first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who showed flashes of brilliance on offense and defense, and Highland Park favorite son Chris Young, a solid rookie pitcher coming off a 12-win season who could have helped satisfy the perpetual cravings of Rangers fans for a decent starting rotation. In exchange, Daniels got veteran starter Adam Eaton and aging reliever Akinori Otsuka.
At the time, the trade made little sense: to some it revealed Daniels' inexperience (the Observer ran a July 2007 profile on Daniels titled "Boy Blunder"); to others such as Newberg, it showed Daniels' penchant for trading away future prospects to pursue his "win now" philosophy.
The trade made even less sense to fans after Young and Gonzalez became All-Stars. Eaton, meanwhile, tore a finger tendon before his first start in a Rangers uniform. He returned from the disabled list to post an ugly 5.12 ERA, which led to a quick departure via free agency to Philadelphia. Otsuka pitched well as a reliever in his two seasons with Texas but left the team after suffering an elbow injury.
Newberg refuses to place all the blame on Daniels, maintaining that Daniels was influenced by then-Rangers manager Buck Showalter, who had a lot of input regarding trades. "And Buck Showalter just wasn't a big Chris Young guy," Newberg says.
But Daniels says that he is "the one that is ultimately accountable," and if he could do it all over again, it's the one trade he'd take back.
Daniels continued to target pitching through free agency, signing Millwood in late 2005 to be the team's ace. The only problem was, Millwood was no ace. With the Cleveland Indians, he had a losing record and was pitching behind CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in the rotation. Even when he posted his best season in 1999, Millwood was not a No. 1 starter. But the Rangers paid him like one and expected him to pitch like one.
At the trade deadline in 2006, Daniels hoped to make a run for the playoffs and acquired the best slugger available—Carlos Lee, who just wasn't the impact bat Daniels was looking for. Again the Rangers missed the playoffs and Lee left as a free agent in the offseason. The Lee deal did have its perk—Nelson Cruz came in the package and the outfielder has been a late bloomer, finishing last season hitting .330 with seven homers and 26 RBI in just 31 games after a call-up to the majors.
Daniels began his second year as GM by firing Showalter and then hiring Ron Washington in November 2006. This seemed like a strange move since Washington had spent a decade with the Oakland A's as an infield and third base coach, and Oakland wasn't desperate to keep him despite needing a manager of its own. Daniels also decided not to interview any of the established managers available at the time, which included Joe Girardi, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy.
The Washington hire became an immediate source of frustration for the team: Washington, known for his prowess as a defensive coach and his ability to relate to players, began feuding with Teixeira and catcher Gerald Laird, and the team he fielded came up lacking in fundamentals. Just two months into the 2007 season, the Rangers were out of contention with a 19-35 record, and media speculation about firing Washington was rampant.
Daniels made several savvy moves in the free agency market, but another clunker was on the horizon: trading former first-round pick John Danks to the Chicago White Sox for Brandon McCarthy. The pitcher has been a massive disappointment, mostly because of his inability to stay healthy. After battling blister, forearm and shoulder blade issues in 2007, he pitched in only five games last year for the Rangers because of injuries to his forearm, elbow and finger.
Daniels clearly hasn't given up on his pitcher. "I still have faith in Brandon McCarthy, now that he's healthy, to be the productive pitcher we thought he'd be."
Signing Sammy Sosa to a cheap one-year contract and extending Young's contract were Daniels' final moves before the team quickly tanked at the start of the 2007 season. That's when Daniels decided to stop handing out massive contracts and trading away young talent to deliver on the win-now approach.
"We sat down and talked with ownership and laid out the vision," Daniels says. "They agreed to it and bought into it, and I'd say that was kind of a turning point."
That turning point included a contract extension for Daniels, despite the Rangers having the worst record in baseball at 26-43.
"He's an intelligent, knowledgeable, brilliant baseball mind," Hicks told the Observer one month after signing him to the extension. "My opinion of JD hasn't wavered."
The draft in June 2007 and three key trades made shortly afterward marked a philosophical shift for an organization desperate to find its way back into the win column.
Texas ended up with two first-round picks as compensation for Carlos Lee signing with the Houston Astros, two first-rounders for popular outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. signing with the Los Angeles Angels and one pick for the loss of versatile utility man Mark DeRosa, who signed with the Chicago Cubs. Daniels chose wisely, using his picks on pitchers Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Neil Ramirez and Tommy Hunter and outfielder Julio Borbon—each of whom has become a highly regarded prospect.
"I'm very pleased with that class," Daniels says.
In late July, Daniels traded veterans Kenny Lofton and Eric Gagne, landing Max Ramirez for Lofton and David Murphy, Kason Gabbard and Engel Beltre for Gagne. Ramirez and Beltre are among the best prospects in baseball, Murphy became the Rangers left fielder last season and Gabbard will compete for a rotation spot this spring—quite a deal for two veterans whose careers fizzled after they left Arlington.
Daniels also needed to find a new home for Teixeira, who was ready to break the bank when he became a free agent in the offseason. So in another late July maneuver, Daniels shopped the switch-hitting first baseman to the Atlanta Braves, which still hoped to make a playoff run.
In exchange for Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay, the Braves handed over a package of five prospects—Feliz, Andrus, Saltalamacchia, Harrison and Beau Jones. The trade has the potential to be the most significant move in team history, especially after Teixeira signed an incredible $180 million contract with the Yankees this offseason.
"They made a great, great trade," says Baseball America's Manuel. "When they got that kind of return in that deal, that's really what made them realize that they could remake the farm system, and that could be the way to remake the franchise."
Daniels began the 2007 offseason by signing Milton Bradley to an affordable one-year contract in December and by taking a risk trading for Josh Hamilton, who would lead the American League in RBI and total bases in the 2008 season. Hamilton added a record-setting home run derby performance at the All-Star Game in New York, and the story of his comeback from severe drug addiction landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Hamilton posted the best season as a center fielder in Rangers history and may have supplanted Michael Young as the face of the franchise.
But to get Hamilton, Daniels was forced to part with Edinson Volquez, who emerged as one of the National League's best pitchers last season with 17 wins, 206 strikeouts and a 3.21 ERA with the Cincinnati Reds.
Much like he did nearly a year earlier, Daniels locked up a key player to a five-year deal before the season, but this time it was for far less money ($22 million), and it was given to Kinsler, who's entering his prime whereas Michael Young is on the decline.
With only one first-round pick in last year's draft, Daniels still managed to grab the best group of talent, according to Baseball America. Justin Smoak, the Rangers' first-rounder, is already considered among the top prospects in the game after playing just 14 games in the minors last season.
Daniels credits owner Hicks with buying into this change in philosophy back in 2007 and supplying him with the resources needed to acquire the best young scouts and players, along with coaches to train them.
"A short-term goal has been realized, and now our challenge is how we take this collection of talent and turn it into a championship team here in Arlington."
Having the best farm system in baseball is no guarantee of success, but as Daniels points out, building and developing a team with homegrown talent is a proven winner. Just look at last year's World Series: the Phillies lineup featured five players who were drafted and developed by the organization, and the Tampa Bay Rays had its own crop of homegrown stars.
Even the New York Yankees, who have a reputation for buying championships, received World Series assists from players it developed such as Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.
"Whether you have a big-end payroll or a lower-end payroll, you've got to develop your own players for it to work," Daniels says.
The Rangers dedication to development already paid dividends last season with the emergence of Teagarden and first baseman Chris Davis as impact players. Andrus should continue this trend as the next wave of prospects takes their place.
But not everyone is convinced Andrus is ready to take over the shortstop job immediately. Even Daniels, who signed Omar Vizquel as insurance, is hedging his bet. "We're pushing him," he says. "I'm not going to sit here and say he's 100 percent ready. We think he is. That will play itself out on the field."
Newberg maintains this season is vital to establishing the Rangers as a contender in 2010, which is a realistic date, according to Daniels. If the Rangers fall in the standings, Washington could easily lose his job. Daniels, under contract until 2011, won't be judged on wins and losses this year, but his Rangers career might be cut short if these young players don't pan out on the field—and soon.
"He's safe unless a bunch of these prospects that they're banking on and the ones that are at the forefront of this youth movement break down or get to the big leagues and don't cut it consistently," Newberg says. "If there are three or four who can't get the job done, then I'd say that philosophy starts to be called into question."
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