October 17, 2011

Rangers GM won his spurs in a tough spot

Mac Engel: Jon Daniels inherited an owner committed to not spending, a marginal farm system and a big league roster that was just OK. Look where his team is now.

ARLINGTON -- Jon Daniels has been a general manager of a Major League Baseball team since 2005, and he now has all of two gray hairs to show for the stress that comes with this job.

"I found one the other day," he said Monday in the Rangers' dugout as the team went through a pre-World Series workout.

This is what can happen when you get the job shortly after your 13th birthday.

A slight exaggeration, but to see Daniels today he looks almost no different than the day he replaced John Hart as the Rangers GM in charge of a baseball mess.

He looks like he is just about ready to finish his undergrad, not preparing for his second consecutive World Series and becoming a dad for the third time.

While Theo Epstein remains the poster boy for the young, Ivy League-educated, baby-faced GM who did the scientifically impossible by ending the curse of the Red Sox, the job Daniels took over was harder, and he at least belongs in the same discussion with Beantown's Boy Wonder.

These are not dumb guys, and not just because they went to Ivy League schools, but because they both walked into nuclear reactor gigs as baseball babies and have thrived.

Unlike Epstein, who recently agreed to take over the Cubs for a small ransom to end the Curse of the Billy Goat, Daniels has a serious perception issue. And it's a blessing that he does. That perception is everything he does is actually the work of Nolan Ryan.

It is an insult to both Nolan and Daniels to believe the Rangers' GM is a dog who speaks when spoken to.

"There was a time that might have really bothered me," Daniels said. "There is a process in place, like anywhere. On a smaller move, we do it. On a big trade, or a free agent, we have to take it to ownership to get their blessing.

"It's like that with 29 other clubs as well. It just so happens that we have an owner who is a Hall of Famer who participates in the decision-making process before it gets to the last stage, not always but sometimes.

"I don't care. There is enough credit to go around for everybody."

This works to the Rangers' benefit because despite this team's success, their front office hasn't been picked clean by other clubs.

When Epstein was hired by John Henry to run the Red Sox in the winter of 2002, Epstein had the backing of an owner who had more money than he could burn, and the makings of a very good team already in place.

Whatever mistakes Epstein made, he had the finances to simply buy off. Ending the curse is no small feat, but he had the tools in place to do it.

Conversely, when Daniels replaced Hart, he inherited an owner who at that point was committed to not spending, a marginal farm system and a big league roster that was OK.

The apathy surrounding this franchise was 40 years in the making. Unlike the Red Sox, which were at least good enough to tease, the Rangers had never been good enough to do much of anything. They were so bad they couldn't even be cursed; they weren't even Chicago South because so few people cared.

About the best thing Daniels had going for him was the ability to screw up, which he did. Brandon McCarthy for John Danks and Adam Eaton for Adrian Gonzalez still sting. He couldn't pull the trigger on Hank Blalock/Danks for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.

But Daniels did learn. There was a plan, there was patience, there were some shrewd moves, and the necessary amount of luck.

"No short cuts. It's about scouting and development," Daniels said. "We're not going to try to buy a championship but build it from the ground up."

The fact that he survived those first few years, and the arrival of a new ownership group and the overwhelming presence of Ryan, surprises Daniels even to this day. The man he credits for surviving is the same man who is mostly reviled at the Ballpark these days: His name rhymes with Mom Nicks.

Whenever anyone seems to talk about the Rangers' front office, however, the discussion begins and ends with Nolan. What that man has done for this franchise can never been accurately measured, or at least not without a seismometer.

One of the smarter things he did was to allow his general manager the ability to grow up in his job, and to become the professional that he is today.

And that person is now the proud owner of consecutive American League titles, and two gray hairs.

Follow Mac Engel on Twitter @MacEngelProf

Mac Engel, 817-390-7760

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