Jon Daniels And A Texas-Sized Void

The Texas Rangers fired President of Baseball Operations Jon Daniels last Wednesday, ending his 17-year run as president/general manager of the club.

You don’t often see me write about baseball on my blog anymore, but there was a time in the not so distant past when it consumed my life on a 365-days-per-year basis. One could argue that the Rangers — when it comes to my favorite sports teams — were my first love in the mid- to late-1990’s. Before Duke basketball in 1999, before Virginia Tech football in 2000, and before the Kansas City Chiefs somewhere around there, it was the high-scoring lovable losers from Arlington, Texas that captured the heart of a baseball fan in Southern California who donned their jersey in the autumn of 1996 at Wildwood Little League.

For most of my childhood the Rangers were bottom-dwellers of the AL West, playing 4th-fiddle to the Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez Mariners’ teams, the World Series champion Anaheim Angeles, and the Moneyball Oakland Athletics. Texas always had their share of boppers like Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro and Pudge Rodriguez, but they could never attract the pitching in free agency or through the draft to field a competitive team. Following their (brief) run of playoff appearances in 1996, 1998 and 1999, Texas wouldn’t return to relevance until the 2010’s decade.

Jon Daniels became General Manager in 2005 as a 28 year-old, making him the youngest GM in baseball. The ascension of the Cornell graduate didn’t come without growing pains. His first signature move came in 2006 when he traded one of the top prospects in baseball, Adrián González, along with Chris Young — who unironically now assumes Daniels’s vacated role as President of the Texas Rangers — to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Brad Wilkerson and veteran reliever Akinori Otsuka.

The trade was a gigantic failure on Daniels’s part; during his five-year stretch with the Padres González was a perennial All-Star, as he slugged 161 home runs and generated a whopping +19.1 fWAR (good for roughly 4 wins per season). Chris Young was no slouch himself, producing +8.0 fWAR between 2006-’08 before succumbing to injuries that plagued him for his last three seasons in San Diego.

The main prize returning to Texas, Brad Wilkerson, played in just 214 games for the Rangers over the course of 2006 and 2007, and performed as nothing more than a replacement-level player (+0.6 fWAR). He retired from baseball in 2008 as a 32 year-old. Akinori Otsuka, on the other hand, was a solid setup man for Texas during the same time span, but he was also in his mid-30’s and ended up going home to pitch in Japan.

Some Rangers fans, including myself, believe Jon Daniels ended up becoming one of the best general managers in baseball specifically because of how poorly his first splash move turned out. It was his reality check, something that wouldn’t happen again because it couldn’t happen again if Daniels wanted to maintain his job.

What followed in the proceeding years was an onslaught of JD torpedoing the rest of MLB. The trade that transformed the Rangers, and laid the foundation for their World Series runs in 2010 and ’11, came in 2007 when he flipped Mark Teixeira — the prize of that summer’s trade deadline — to the Braves for a bundle of prospects that included Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison. In 2008 he traded Texas’s best pitching prospect, Edinson Volquez, to the Cincinnati Red for troubled star Josh Hamilton.

Loaded with a war chest of young, controllable talent, the Rangers finished the 2009 season 87-75, which was only the second time during the 2000’s decade that the club finished above .500.

Texas’s championship window began in 2010 when, at the trade deadline, they acquired Cliff Lee from the Mariners for top prospect Justin Smoak. Behind Lee’s brilliance against the Rays in the ALDS, and the Yankees in the ALCS, the Rangers made their first World Series appearance in franchise history before losing four games to one to the San Francisco Giants. I’ll still never forget the moment that sent Texas to the big dance:

I was sitting in the kitchen at my parent’s old house watching the game with my mom, who could barely stand to watch (even though the Rangers were winning 6-1). The conclusion of this series came with it some cosmic irony, given that Alex Rodriguez played for Texas during a very forgettable stretch (2001-’03), and it was the Rangers that traded him to the Yankees in 2004. The final script was perfect, with Rodriguez making the final out to send Texas to the promised land.

Before the 2011 season Daniels signed Adrian Beltre to a free agent contract for 6 years and $96 million; over the course of that deal Beltre was one of the most consistent middle of the order hitters in all of baseball, generating an unconscionable +32.4 fWAR despite being on the wrong side of 30 the whole time. It was by far the best free agent deal Daniels made during his tenure as General Manager.

The Rangers won 96 games in 2011 and returned to the World Series for a second straight year. There, they played the St. Louis Cardinals in what could objectively be called one of the best championship series’ of the century up to this point. There were stellar individual performances by all of Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Derek Holland, culminating in a Game 6 where the Rangers were twice just one strike away from winning a World Series. There are plenty of highlights from that Game 6, as it is legitimately one of the best games in World Series history, but I don’t have the heart to post it here because I just don’t feel like revisiting it.

My main takeaway was pain. With the loss the series was still tied 3-3, so Texas had an opportunity to win Game 7. I just spent the rest of my night, and the rest of the following morning, with a keen sense of impending doom. I knew, intuitively, that the Rangers weren’t going to win the final game. The Cardinals ended up taking a fairly forgettable Game 7 by a final scoring of 6-2, keeping Texas from its elusive first World Series title in franchise history.

I said it at the time and have probably said it on my blog several times, but sports were never the same for me after that. As a fan of teams who have made (and won) championship games and, likewise, absorbed crippling defeats, I always understood the contract I was signing up for. Sports bring such great pain and indescribable elation as a direct result of them being out of my control.

But for the Rangers to be ahead 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th inning, with two outs and two strikes, and give up a game tying hit, was difficult. What many people don’t remember about that game is that in the top of the 10th Josh Hamilton hit a two-run blast to right center field, giving the Rangers a 9-7 lead. Then in the bottom of the 10th, with two outs and two strikes, pitcher Scott Feldman gave up a broken bat single to veteran Lance Berkman to again tie the game. David Freese hit a walk off homer in the 11th to give St. Louis a 10-9 victory.

So it was not just a singular moment that caused my sports fan pain. There were two moments — before the walk off homer — the type of shit that feels more like a punishment from the universe than a typical heartbreaking defeat.

2012 was the last of what could be considered an “all-in,” or “going for it” season for the Rangers. They upgraded their rotation by signing international superstar Yu Darvish from the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan for over $100 million, and maintained all the usual suspects in the lineup. I argue that — from the lineup, to the rotation, to the bullpen — 2012 was the most stacked roster of the Jon Daniels era. But almost as if the Rangers ran out of gas from their previous two years, they lost a five-game lead in the division to the Oakland A’s with nine games left in the season.

The Rangers remained competitive over the next five years, winning the AL West in 2015 and 2016 and making the postseason two additional times, but they were never able to advance past the American League Division Series. The once controllable players they built the franchise on began to get older and more expensive, and Daniels either traded them or let them go in free agency.

For the majority of time since 2017 the Rangers have been stuck in a no man’s land of Major League Baseball — the last place organizations want to reside — being a little too good to tank but not nearly good enough to compete for playoff spots. I think where Daniels screwed up, or at least committed his original sin, was not blowing the team up earlier on. There was a window between 2017 and 2018 when he could have gotten real assets back for players like Joey Gallo, or Elvis Andrus, or an assortment of pitchers like Mike Minor or Lance Lynn, but Daniels stuck to his guns in hopes of winning. By the time he did choose to move those players it was a year (or two) too late, and they weren’t as valuable.

It appeared, over the last couple seasons, as if a new dream was going to be realized under Daniels’s leadership. The Rangers finished with one of the worst records in baseball in 2020 and 2021, netting them star collegiate prospects in Jack Leiter (drafted #2 overall in 2021) and Kumar Rocker (drafted #3 overall in 2022). And during this most recent offseason they added Corey Seager and Marcus Simien to nine-figure contracts.

The thought there, of course, wasn’t that the Rangers planned on competing this year. It was that the bulk of their minor league talent was playing in Double-A, and that by the time they were ready to contribute at the big league level the lineup would already have a couple reliable stars. Baseball takes time. You can’t just snap your fingers and go from a last place team to a World Series contender.

That’s what makes Jon Daniels’s firing so perplexing. Knowing how much time he has been part of the Rangers organization, and how long he has spent with the ownership group, one would think that the notions of an outsider like me would be commonplace and easily understood and communicated by everybody. You would have to be an idiot to assume the signings of Seager and Simien automatically signaled that the Rangers had intentions of competing right away.

It also doesn’t instill very much confidence from fans like me that ownership has any goddamn clue what they are doing at this point. I can’t shake the feeling that by firing Daniels the Rangers could be aborting a true rebuild only midway through the process. Most MLB teams look at rebuilding as a four- or five-step program with Step One being a full-on tank, Step Two and Three being revamping the farm system and acquiring major league talent, Step Four competing for divisions and Step Five competing for a World Series.

From my vantage point Daniels had the Rangers squarely in Step 3, with a handful of big league guys capable of playing on a first-place team and another half-dozen players about a year away who could rise from the minors and shine on a competitive roster. Now, I just don’t know.

I don’t know if the transition from Daniels to Chris Young now means that the Rangers are going to be conservative and hope the prospects work out, be aggressive and use some of those prospects to acquire bonafide stars, or simply look to dump the major contracts they doled out last offseason and turn into the Marlins or Pirates — teams with owners who don’t want to compete.

What I do know is that Jon Daniels built the Rangers the right way, from the ground up. I know they never experienced success before he got there; they never consistently won baseball games or competed for championships. I don’t know how they will be now that he’s gone, but Daniels earned the benefit of the doubt when he was in Texas. That’s something few fan bases can ever say about the people running their favorite teams.

Selfishly, I’m going to miss having having him simply because he was the driver of so many of my happiest sports memories. From the trades and the build up to being competitive, to the playoff and World Series appearances, even to the most recent teardown. My faith in JD never wavered, because he had done it before and I was certain he was going to do it again.

I was 15 years old when Daniels took over my favorite baseball team, and I’m 32 now. The Rangers haven’t been good since 2016, and haven’t been great for a decade. But the success of Daniels and the success of the Rangers made me a fanatic of baseball for almost ten years — between 2008 and 2018 — a stretch of time I otherwise never thought was possible given how bad Texas always was.

In a longwinded sort of way I guess all I’m saying is Thanks For The Memories, as this was a blog I did not expect to write for the mere fact that I was genuinely upset at the news of his departure when I woke up last Wednesday. Upon second thought it didn’t feel right that a person who made my favorite baseball team what it was, what it is, could go unmentioned.

So here it is.

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