Back on July 11, I spent a couple innings with Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels inside a luxury suite at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington as the team finished a lousy four-game series with the Baltimore Orioles. His team would lose that day and limped into the All-Star break after getting swept by the O's, but Daniels had landed new ace Cliff Lee just two days earlier in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, and struggles by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Oakland A's kept first place firmly in the hands of the Rangers -- a lead they'd never relinquish.
Of course, Texas is now one win away from sweeping its first playoff series in franchise history as right-hander Colby Lewis takes the hill tomorrow in Arlington against Matt Garza.
Among many subjects I discussed with Daniels -- most notably the team's bankruptcy and pending auction -- was his signing of Lewis in the offseason, which I'd argue turned out to be the savviest free-agent pitcher acquisition of the year.
Lewis, a Rangers' first-round pick in 1999 who bounced around four other organizations before heading to Japan for two years to play for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, outperformed the biggest name on the market: John Lackey of the Red Sox.
Lackey: 14-11 record, 4.40 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 215 innings and 156 strikeouts
Lewis: 12-13 record (which would have been much better had he gotten better run support), 3.72 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 201 innings and 196 strikeouts
Oh, and Daniels saved a few bucks too. Lackey signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract that paid him $18 million this season, while Lewis inked a two-year deal worth just $5 million with an option for 2012. (The breakdown: $1.75 million in '10, $3 million in '11 and a $3.25 million option in '12 with a $250,000 buyout, according to Cot's.)
When I asked Daniels if he was surprised about Lewis' success, he said he expected what former staff ace Kevin Millwood gave the team last year, guessing around 200 innings and a 3.84 ERA.
"Millwood's ERA was over 4, wasn't it?" I asked.
At this point, assistant general manager Thad Levine entered the room.
"Thad, what was Millwood's ERA last year?" Daniels asked.
"Something over 4."
Daniels quickly argued back that it was "definitely under 4" and had Levine look up the stats on a nearby computer.
"I'm guessing 4.50," Levine said.
Emboldened by Levine's prediction, I agreed -- had to be 4.50 or somewhere around that number.
Daniels then tweaked his guess slightly to 3.86.
"It was 3.67," Levine said.
"I knew it wasn't over 4!" Daniels said.
"It sure felt like it, though," Levine said.
After ERAs of 4.52 in '06, 5.16 in '07 and 5.07 in '08, yeah, it did feel like Millwood was worse than he was last year. Sure, he was never the ace he was paid to be, but he finally posted an effort you'd be ecstatic to get outta your third starter, which, of course, he never was.
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But instead of keeping Millwood and his hefty contract, Daniels found someone to fill that role much cheaper who's on his way up instead of down. (Millwood was awful this year in Baltimore, losing 16 games and posting a 5.10 ERA.) And, luckily for the Rangers, interest from other teams in Lewis forced a long-term commitment that Daniels said he wasn't initially prepared to make.
"I give this guy a lot of credit," Daniels told me. "He packed up a young family, went overseas, lived and worked in a new culture and perfected his craft. That's not an easy thing to do."
When Lewis takes the mound at 4:07 tomorrow afternoon, the rotation overhaul will once again be on display. With Lee and C.J. Wilson dominating the Rays in the first two games, Lewis has a chance to make history. And, thanks to Daniels, the Rangers no longer are relying on guys like Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Adam Eaton. Lewis has the stuff to wrap this series up -- one of many reasons why Daniels should walk away with the award for the Executive of the Year.
Let's just hope the Rangers find a way to keep Daniels because teams with bigger wallets will be calling after the Rangers' ride makes its final stop.