Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels Has Matured Into One of Baseball’s Best Brains

It was two years ago that I sat down with Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. We ate sushi. We swapped stories. We talked baseball and life and near-death and philosophies and farm systems and...

We've barely talked since.

My cover story in the July 12, 2007, issue of the Dallas Observer was more a peek into Daniels' life and a preview of the moves baseball's youngest GM was on the cusp of making rather than a condemnation of his short reign. But he received its cartoonish headline—"Boy Blunder"—like a fastball between the shoulder blades.

The hell with "don't judge a book by its cover" or "don't let a negative headline spoil a positive feature," a disgusted Daniels thereafter refused to talk with me one-on-one. Until today.

I cautiously proceed via an arranged interview over the phone.

"I'm writing a column anointing you as baseball's Executive of the Year," I say.

Retorts Daniels: "Oh, stop."

But go on I will. Because this isn't a kiss-up. It's a coronation.

More than anyone, Daniels deserves the credit for a remarkable Rangers season that's ahead of its time. Yes, 2010 is the season Texas earmarked for seriously competing for a title in the American League West, but in 2009—thanks to their GM's shrewd moves—the Rangers are baseball's premature exaltation. A franchise that hasn't sniffed the playoffs this millennium began August on the heels of the red-hot Anaheim Angels.

"We had a great first half of the season, and we're keeping it going," Daniels says. "But this is no time to celebrate."

Patience. Perseverance. Perspective.

When Daniels was a 28-year-old Doogie Wowser of a punch line back in 2005, he merely crunched the numbers and continued pulling triggers in the wake of seemingly lopsided deals that netted the Rangers only Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano, and Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka for Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez. He also, remember, took considerable heat for hiring a manager named Ron Washington.

But for a Cornell kid who was riding subways into Manhattan by himself at 11 and who, at 21, narrowly escaped a fatal car crash on an icy Boston highway, the attacks were mere potholes.

"I never lost confidence, never doubted myself," Daniels says. "Some moves work, some don't. As a group we made the decision to go in some directions that we thought were sound. Doubt can never come into play, or you're in the wrong business. I have an internal belief system that remained strong."

What you're plucking from these Rangers was actually planted in mid-June 2007. Despite his orchestrating of a trade deficit and his team's 26-44 record, Daniels received a contract extension. Strange as it may sound, give Tom Hicks credit. The owner knew it had to get worse before it got better.

It did. And it is.

"The trade deadline is approaching, and I wanted to get in front of that," Hicks then explained of his Daniels deal that was universally harpooned as idiocy. "Some of our veterans will be traded with the future in mind. I wanted the questions about Jon's security to be off the table."

In retrospect, it was pure genius.

Because when that trade deadline—July 31, 2007—arrived, Daniels indeed made deals not to save his own job, but to secure his team's future.

He traded free-agent-to-be first baseman Mark Teixeira—who likely was going to leave Texas with zero compensation—and reliever Ron Mahay to the Atlanta Braves for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones. Acquiring a catcher, shortstop and two pitchers who will likely be a part of at least one Rangers pennant winner in the near future, the deal is among the best in franchise history and arguably the sweetest all-time in the metroplex, alongside the Dallas Cowboys' fleecing of the Minnesota Vikings for draft picks that turned into Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, Darren Woodson and three Super Bowls for Herschel Walker, and the Dallas Mavericks' draft-day trade of Robert Traylor to the Milwaukee Bucks for a kid named Dirk Nowitzki. On the same day he traded Teixeira, Daniels swapped veterans Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton for David Murphy and coveted catching prospect Max Ramirez.

Eventually, the critics stopped calling for Washington's head and Daniels' job. And the same folks who criticized Daniels two years ago crowned him Executive of the Year over baseball's All-Star break.

And why shouldn't they? Er, we.

Daniels, who in the past showed a knack for salvaging veterans like Gagne, Lofton and Sammy Sosa off the junk pile, has done it again with Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel. His risky move to displace Gold Glove shortstop Michael Young in order to promote Andrus over AAA and into the majors has been validated. And in April he made what may be the greatest waiver-wire signing in team history with pitcher Darren O'Day. All that on the heels of Baseball America ranking the Rangers' farm system No. 1 in baseball.

Outhouse meet penthouse.

"I haven't seen any of the midseason stuff, honestly," Daniels says. "But getting noticed like that is an acknowledgment of our group pulling on the same end of the rope. We all share the same value system. We've got the right direction. The right vision. As one of the leaders of this franchise, part of my job is to be in the spotlight. I'll give credit to the organization when things go right, and I'll accept blame when it doesn't. I can take it."

Suddenly, at last week's trading deadline, Daniels morphed from a builder into a tinkerer. With bargaining chips aplenty and his team teased with mortgaging some future for a chance at some present, the GM found himself on the other end of the phone—antsy to deal prospects for potential missing pieces.

The good news: Daniels and the Rangers stood pat.

Texas tried to acquire ace pitcher Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays, but balked when asked to part with promising lefty Derek Holland. The Rangers also pondered deals to get Cliff Lee and Jarrod Washburn but, in the final analysis, "stick with it" trumped "go for it."

"We went after some of those obvious upgrades," Daniels said after last Friday's inactivity, "but when those didn't materialize we didn't think it made a whole lot of sense to shuffle the deck."

For the first time in a long time for the Rangers, doing not a thing was the right thing. Sure, Halladay would've given them a better chance to win right here, right now. Keeping its prospects—think Justin Smoak, Julio Borbon, Feliz and Holland—may delay the opening of the winning window, but it will, more importantly, keep it ajar longer into the next decade.

It's taken Daniels two years to get the Rangers' future out of debt. Kudos that he didn't get sucked into a cash-for-clunkers scam.

"Absolutely our plan is working," Daniels says. "In the next couple years it will only get better. I'm looking at the really big picture, as in the next decade really should be the best this franchise has experienced."

Jon Daniels has taken his beating.

Now it's time for him to take a bow.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt