So I decided, with the Rangers in the World Series again, to post the article I wrote for the University of Dallas Newspaper back in 2008 on the organizational philosophy of the Texas Rangers. I had the privileged of interviewing the General Manager, Jon Daniels, for the article. After looking back over the article, I realize the writing is not strong but the ideas of Jon Daniels back in 2008 have really come to life since then.
Along with posting the article itself, I am including the entire interview transcript for any interested baseball nerd.
For all you baseball types, I hope you find it interesting.
For a house to stand strong, it must be built upon a firm foundation. A firm foundation gives stability to the house bringing it sustained longevity.
In this new millennium, the house of the Texas Rangers has been built upon a foundation of sand. When Doug Melvin was ousted as the general manager after the 2001 season, John Hart was hired to bring the Rangers back to their glory days of 1996-1999. His plan was to build the Rangers around free agent acquisitions and trades that would put the team in a position to win now. Hart doled out large contracts to Chan Ho Park and Alex Rodriguez that ultimately inhibited the team from signing other quality players. This caused the Rangers to be a mediocre team during the John Hart era. After 4 unsuccessful seasons, Hart resigned and handed his job over in 2005 to the assistant GM at the time, Jon Daniels. When he was hired, Daniels was the youngest GM in the game at 28 years old.
Jon Daniels’ first year and a half looked a lot like Hart’s 4 years in the organization. Inheriting Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, Alfonso Soriano, Chris Young and Michael Young, Daniels felt like he had a core of players in which he could build a contender around immediately, either through trading a few of them to obtain other quality pieces or keeping a few of them to ultimately build around.
“When I got the opportunity at the end of ’05,” Daniels recounts, “We said ‘Hey, if x, y, and z go right we would have a chance.’ We made some moves and stepped on the gas.”
First, Daniels spun 2B/OF Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for OF Brad Wilkerson, minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga, and OF Terrmel Sledge. While this move was controversial at the time, the acquisition of a power/on base threat in Wilkerson was needed in the Rangers lineup. Next, Daniels traded SP Chris Young, former 1st pick in the draft 1B Adrian Gonzalez and newly acquired OF Terrmel Sledge to the Padres for the tease known as SP Adam Eaton, RP Akinori Otsuka and minor league catcher Billy Killian. Neither of these trades worked out well for the Rangers with Otsuka being the only player to play consistently well for the club.
Daniels notes, “I think, looking back at that point, if we said, ‘if all these things go right and we have a chance, but the odds are still against us, lets start building this foundation today, and build for the long term,’ we would be in a better position today than we are now,”
With these trades not working out like the Rangers had hoped, the Rangers decided to move in another direction. Daniels describes this direction as a “building process.” This building process focuses more upon building the organization from the ground up. What that means is acquiring talent within the minor leagues that will either directly help the major league club or the talent will be spun off for players who are already prepared to help the big league club immediately.
“You look at the different models that different clubs have gone about it, and the number one constant is that they have had success developing their own players,” Daniels observed. “Even the Yankees and the Red Sox, who people talk about how they just spend money, Well you look at the teams and you look at the roles of where these key guys have come from and you look at the Red Sox: [Dustin] Pedroia, [Jonathan] Papelbon, [Jon] Lester, [Clay] Buchholz, [Kevin] Youkilis, they have played key roles on that team. [Jacoby] Ellsbury also comes up. [Josh] Beckett, a huge player, they go out and they get him by trading Hanley [Ramirez], one of their key guys. So, even the best teams today, you can not win without developing your own players.”
The Rangers attempt to follow suit. For the Rangers, their perpetual problem comes in their lack of quality pitchers. Since the Rangers have taken the approach to build through their minor league system, they have focused on acquiring pitching talents with the potential to be a major league ace.
“We are only going to go as far as our pitching goes,” Daniels said. “It is so difficult to find upper rotation starters, the legitimate #1 and #2 guys. There are only what, 8 or 10 legitimate, true #1’s in the game. And then #2’s, how many are there really?”
Here a few names for you to keep an eye on within the Rangers minor league system. Neftali Feliz (#5 in the Rangers system according to Baseball America), who came over from the Braves in the Teixiera deal, can throw in the 94-97 mph range with ease while touching 99 on occasion. His curveball and change up flash the potential to be very good major league pitches as well. Being only 19, he has time to refine his game and secondary pitches. Wilmer Font, a 17 year old right handed pitcher out of Venezuela who stands at a measly 6-4 237 pounds, can throw his fastball anywhere from 93-98. His secondary pitches are a work in progress but he is only 17 and has plenty of time to develop. In the 2007 draft, the Rangers drafted Blake Beaven in the 1st round out of nearby Irving High School. Beaven already has two potential devastating major league pitches in his fastball and his slider. He can throw his fastball anywhere around 92-96 and his slider, his best pitch, in the mid-80’s. Feliz, Font and Beaven have the potential to be a #1 pitcher that Daniels and the Rangers are looking for and have been looking for since the days of Nolan Ryan. And this is just to name only a few of the guys the Rangers have stockpiled.
“We’ve got to develop our own guys and you aren’t going to develop those guys by taking nice, safe guys that maybe have a chance to get there a little quicker,” Daniels notes. “You are going to have to take some risks and hopefully through having enough of a stable of these guys, you can withstand the inevitable injuries and some of the other things that are going to happen.”
By acquiring all of this talent, the Rangers now have the #4 farm system, according to Baseball America, in all of baseball. From Feliz, to Beaven, to Font, to RHP Michael Main, to 1B/OF Chris Davis, to SS Elvis Andrus, and to LHP Kasey Kiker, the Rangers have a stable of players to carry them on in the future. All of them will not pan out but the more you have, the better opportunity for a handful of them to make it.
“We are not done adding talent to the system,” Daniels assures. “The bottom line is we might have 20-30 exciting prospects but out of those 20 or 30, we are hoping to get 5 or 10 who have a chance over the next 5 years to really impact the team.”
5 to 10 guys can make a difference. Just look at the Red Sox.
This new era run by Jon Daniels is not built upon the sand of the John Hart years but it is built upon the rock.
The Rangers finally have a wise home builder. Be patient, a good house is not built in one day.
Q: What is the Rangers plan?
A: We are definitely in a building process. I think pretty much every team is somewhere, baseball is kind of a cycle. It is very cyclical game. Every team is somewhere on the cycle. Even the Yankees and Red Sox people talk about these teams and how they just spend money and do this. Well you look at the teams they have taken and you look at the roles of where these key guys have come from and you look at the Red Sox: Pedroia, Papelbon, Lester, Buchholz, Youklis play key roles on that team and Ellsbury comes up, key role on that team. Obviously Beckett, huge role and they go out and they get him by trading Hanley one of their key guys. So, you, even the best teams today, you can not win without developing your own players. I mean, obviously, they are much further along in the process along the cycle than we are. But you look at different models that have different clubs that have gone about it and the number one constant is that they have had success developing their own players and they develop different kinds of players. The Braves have developed, you know, players that have one kind of skill set or one thing in common. Oakland, they believe in something a little different. Minnesota, Cleveland, all these different clubs, you see, you can tell when you look at Minnesota, it is a Twins type of player. When you look at Oakland, it is an Oakland type player. What we have to do is develop our identity. When you walk, you know when other scouts come through they say “that’s a Rangers type player.” That’s what we are trying to do right now. A lot of that is going to come from being relentless in talent acquisition and pouring as much youth into the system and talent into the system as possible teaching them how we want them to play the game and how we want them going about being a professional and attacking this thing. But at the end of the day, you know, they are going to sort themselves out as far as who is the most deserving of an opportunity at the big league level.
Q: So what is a Rangers type of player?
A: You know, that is a tremendous question. I think, from a pitching staff, we are going to try to keep things real simple. You know, the one thing you have is throw strikes. You have to throw strikes and our starters have to pitch innings. Especially in the heat in Texas, you have to prepare to be durable and go our there. Nolan Ryan talks about and one of the questions I first asked him “when you came to Texas” he was at the later stage of his career “did you change your mindset pitching in the heat, pitching in an environment?” “The only thing I tried to do was every day when I went out there, my mindset is, I got to stay out here longer than the opposing starting pitcher. When you do that and I accomplished that I’m going to have to be efficient and I’m going to have to throw strikes” and that is what we are trying to get our guys to do. Have them develop that mindset that they forget what the scoreboard says, your job is to outlast the opposing starter to give us a chance to win the game and try to develop, you know, as much as anything, it is about conditioning and developing that mindset. For position players, you know, one of our philosophies is we aren’t going to give up free bases. Whether it is walks, stolen bases, wild pitches, passed balls, errors, letting the trail runner advance because he threw it to the wrong base. We are going to try to play a very fundamental game. Offensively, we are going to grind it out. We are not going to be looking for the walk, our guys are free to but in certain, when the game dictates it, in a game situation, we have got to be able to play that situation. Those are some of the things that we are stressing.
Q: How far along are the Rangers in this process?
A: Its hard to kind of give a, quantify it exactly. If it is a five step process, we are probably somewhere around step 3 or 4. I mean, I think we still have a couple of things we need to do as far as pushing some of our younger guys and getting them to the big leagues and then once they are there, getting them over the hump to where their not just checking a box, happy to there but that they are a productive big league player and winning big league players, and playing the game the right way. And we are not done adding talent to the system. The bottom line is we might have 20-30 exciting prospects but out of those 20 or 30, we are hoping to get 5 or 10 but we have a chance over the next 5 years to really impact the team. We need to do better than that.
Q: Why has the focus been on young, high ceiling players?
A: At the big league level now and with some of the prospects coming up, especially that upper level group, we are going to put a good position player club out there and I think a better one than we have had than the last 2 years, quite frankly. But we are only going to go as far as our pitching goes. It is so difficult to find upper rotation starters, the legitimate #1 and #2 guys. There are only what, 8 or 10 legitimate, true #1’s in the game. And then #2’s, how many are there really. You saw what Arizona gave up to get Dan Haren and you saw how pricey it was for the Mets both in dollars and talent to land Santana and they were only one of a couple teams who had a chance to do that. Those guys don’t come available very often. We’ve got to develop our own guys and you aren’t going to develop those guys by taking nice, safe guys that maybe have a chance to get there a little quicker. You are going to have to take some risks and hopefully through having enough of a stable of these guys you can withstand the inevitable injuries and some of the other things that are going to happen. So we have focused on, Latin America has been an area. You go into big league free agency and you try to acquire players it is extremely pricy, the barrier of entry is tough because a lot of the best players don’t get there because they get locked up before hand. You go to try to trade for these top end pitchers and again, some of these prices but also very few of them come available. You try to draft them, you can do that, but only Tampa Bay had the opportunity to draft David Price. You only pick once every 30 picks. But in Latin Americaand the international market, you can sign as many guys as you want. Your only limit is your own budget and how hard you work at it. So this is where we say this is an area where we can make some head way. A.J. Preller and his department has really gotten after it.
Q: Is there a specific team the Rangers model their organization after?
A: The Indians are a club that I look at. You know, if you look at the 2007 media guide, that the very front, the picture of Larry Dolan, their club president and you read through his bio and at the bottom right it talks about their mission statement and also a quote about what they want to do. The Indians are primarily, a big league payroll about 25th to 28th, 22nd-28th, somewhere in that lower third and that is not where they are going to have their competitive advantage. But what they do try to do, every year they are top 5 in terms of investing and development and scouting and amateur signing bonuses. That is kind of what we are trying to do. We are probably going to be a bottom half, bottom third payroll, at least until our revenues get to a point where it makes more sense to do something else. But what we are going to do, we are going to spend big in our infrastructure, we are going to invest in our infrastructure, hire more scouts, hire the best coaches and sign more players. That is something we need to get and to continue to build on.
Q: What mistakes and successes from the past has brought you and the organization to this point?
A: When I got the opportunity at the end of ’05, we said “hey, if x, y, and z go right, and we position of the club, we would have the chance.” We made some moves and stepped on the gas and we probably weren’t ready to do so as a club. I think, looking back at that point, if we said, if all these things go right we have a chance but the odds are still against us. Lets start building this foundation today, and build for the long term, we would be in a better position today than we are now. And what I want to do, obviously, you are never waving the white flag, you are always focused on the season at hand and want to put the most competitive team on the field you can and give yourself a chance to have those things fall in line like Arizona or like Colorado did last year but the bottom line is for it to be sustainable the only way it is going to work for us is to keep the eye on the prize and to continue looking long term and develop these young players and hold on to as many as possible.
Q: Purpose of short term deals?
A: First things first, you want to sign these guys hoping that they are going to be a productive piece for the team and kind of fill a hole that we are not able to fill internally until some of our better young players are able to step in. I think, that is the first hope. Then also, the hope that maybe Milton or Jason really click and we think hey this guy can be here long term. They are both 29 or 30 years old or whatever they are and we can sign these guys to multi year deal and have them be here and we know we added a core piece when we didn’t necessarily have one. But in the back of your mind, you have to be realistic and say, if this doesn’t work out, we are not able to commit to them or vice versa then at least you do have one year guys without big contracts and those are typically the guys who are attractive at the deadline and we could be in the position again where we can add some pieces but you try not to think about that too much because obviously you don’t want to be sellers in March.
Q: What players do you feel like you are going to give them a shot in the big leagues to see if they fail or succeed?
A: I don’t know if I have any players off the top of my head. I think the key thing there is not every player gets that same opportunity. We have to make decisions not just once they are given an opportunity whether we are going to keep them or move them on but also who deserves that opportunity. Sometimes it is a rough business and guys don’t necessarily get a chance at the big league level with the organization that brought them up. But hopefully they do. Sometimes, you are just stacked up at a position or the timing is not right and so not everybody gets the same opportunity, you know, part of our job is to evaluate who are the most deserving and who will give us the best chance going forward