One of the hardest things to find among the Texas Rangers’ fan base, or at least among the fans unafraid to voice their opinions, is middle ground when it comes to general manager Jon Daniels.
To many, he is the franchise’s savior, learning from early mistakes and starting over from scratch after an era of wild spending to build a contender with young talent, savvy baseball trades, and, only when needed, big-money acquisitions.
Daniels can do no wrong, and if something does go awry, he’ll fix it.
To others, Daniels is an Ivy League-educated kid who doesn’t have a clue. That was before he ran off Nolan Ryan, who to this chunk of fans deserves the credit for the Rangers’ leap as the president and CEO who oversaw Daniels.
But to all fans, wins and losses matter most, and since Daniels has been in place as GM beginning at the ripe age of 28, the Rangers have won far more than at any other time in the franchise’s existence.
It’s not a small sample size, either. Try 10 seasons, nearly 850 wins and two World Series appearances.
That’s right: 10 seasons of Jon Daniels, the youngest GM ever hired who now, love him or hate him, is among baseball’s most entrenched and most successful at his position.
“It’s remarkable,” Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine said. “The story has shifted from him being the youngest GM to, when we go to some industry meetings, he’s one of the most-tenured with one team.”
Jon Daniels came to the Rangers in 2002 as an assistant in baseball operations, was named director of baseball operations in 2003, and was promoted to assistant general manager by John Hart in 2004.
Secret to success
Daniels tries to never take credit for the Rangers’ successes, reveling in giving others the spotlight for their roles in an acquisition or a player’s development, and he always tries to take the blame when something goes wrong.
“When we do well there’s enough credit for everyone,” said Daniels, who replaced John Hart in October 2005. “When things go wrong, you better take as much of it as you can.”
That’s part of what he believes a leader should do, as is creating an environment in which every member of the front office is allowed to prosper. Ultimately, Daniels’ decisions come from a small circle of confidants, but the executives he has put in place have largely remained in tact because they don’t want to learn if the grass is greener on the other side.
“It’s a pretty simple management philosophy,” Daniels said. “Hire good people, provide them with resources, and let them do their jobs.”
While Levine, senior director of player personnel Josh Boyd and senior director of player development Mike Daly are among the most tenured Daniels lieutenants, they’re not a bunch of yes men. Someone always seems to play the role of devil’s advocate to keep a contrarian’s point of view in the discussion.
Any one of these guys can, and often does, elbow me in the ribs and says, ‘Hey … .’ I want that. I need these guys to check me.
Jon Daniels on the checks and balances in Rangers front office
That comes from long relationships built on trust.
“The decisions that scare us the most are the ones that everyone is either in favor of or against,” Levine said. “We usually have a pretty heated discussion. J.D. expertly canvasses all of our guys. Sometimes he targets guys he knows are against where we’re going.”
But it’s not just the warm, fuzzy feeling in the front office that has transformed the Rangers from doormat to perennial contender. The Rangers have found talent, either through free-agent acquisitions and trades or drafts and international signings, after a dicey first few years to the Daniels era.
After some early flops, the trade winds shifted with the Mark Teixeira deal, which started the franchise overhaul and produced three key contributors to the World Series years in 2010 and 2011.
The free-agent signings of Colby Lewis in 2010, Adrian Beltre in 2011 and Yu Darvish in 2012 have been home runs, and under-the-radar trades for Bengie Molina in 2010 and Sam Dyson in 2015 have helped fuel division titles.
“One of his gifts is that he approaches each new opportunity with none of the bravado of previous successes or concerns of previous failures,” Levine said. “We’re making each new decision based on its merits. We really do take each one individually.”
The Rangers continue to plug away internationally — where they found, among others, left-hander Martin Perez and second baseman Rougned Odor — to acquire and develop talent either for the big-league roster or to dangle in trades to supplement the big-league roster.
JD puts people in a position that allows them to do there job, but there’s a lot of collaboration. The relationship part can’t be overlooked.
Josh Boyd on working environment in Rangers front office
This isn’t a numbers-based group, as many have perceived based on Daniels’ youth and degree from Cornell in applied economics and management. Daniels is more old school, relying on scouting and people and relationships, than he is an advanced-metrics man.
And it works.
“Just a lot of good people,” Daniels said. “There’s no magic formula. No short cuts. Good people and hard work. There’s been a lot made about internal issues, but on the whole we’re a very unified group. There are a lot of people who have been here a long time, and we all work well together.”
J.D. the competitor
Daniels rarely steps away from his reserved public persona, whether things are going well for the Rangers or if they just took a gut punch, so it’s hard to imagine him fighting tooth and nail with another team’s front office or a player’s agent.
But, privately, Daniels can mix it up.
“I don’t think people realize how intensely competitive he is,” Boyd said. “With that level of success and the tenure, you have to be. There’s an intensity, a look in the eye. It makes you feel good. He’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
Each day Daniels heads to his office at Globe Life Park with the goal of helping the Rangers become more competitive.
He focuses on the short term, be it a seemingly meaningless early-season game, and the long term, improving the roster until it can contend. He did both in 2015, as the Rangers tried to survive early with a flawed roster before a series of trades helped turn them into the American League West champs for the third time in Daniels’ reign.
The Rangers have been aggressive, especially at the trade deadline. The biggest acquisition was Cliff Lee in 2010, as the Rangers beat the New York Yankees for the left-hander and then watched him dominate in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Some of those deals that he’s made, I don’t think they get made if he was a straight analytics guy. He does a good job of knowing and is very aware of who our scouts like and what the numbers are. I think he’s very good at being aware.
Josh Boyd, who oversees Rangers pro scouting
The addition of Cole Hamels, along with Jake Diekman and Dyson, in July helped propel the Rangers’ second-half surge while also giving them a top-flight pitcher and two hard-throwing late-inning relievers for at least the next three seasons.
Along the way, Daniels has left some feeling burned as he seized upon leverage or stood by his belief that things can always get better. Or both.
“You have to have conviction in what you’re doing,” Daniels said.
Ruthless? Maybe. Tough? Yes. When Daniels draws a line in the sand, he doesn’t leave much wiggle room.
“The magnitude of the deals that all these GMs make, you’re talking about sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars or multiple players,” Boyd said. “He has to be tough. He’s a very good negotiator.”
Daniels’ firmness resulted in getting Atlanta to throw a Double A pitcher into the Teixeira deal, and left-hander Matt Harrison became an All-Star before injuries interrupted his career and he was included in the Hamels trade.
4 Playoff appearances (2010, 2011, 2012, 2015) for Rangers with Jon Daniels as general manager
Also at the 2007 trade deadline, Daniels convinced Boston to throw outfielder David Murphy into a deal for Eric Gagne. Murphy became another key cog in the Rangers’ best seasons.
Daniels always seems to get the Rangers’ trade partner to throw cash into a deal, and when he’s making deals at the winter meetings or the trade deadline, he’s the calmest person in the room.
“Everything moves very quickly in the room, and somehow that’s like a Matrix moment for him,” Levine said. “He sees an opportunity that everyone else can’t see.”
Not all rosy
Daniels will be the first to admit that it hasn’t been all smooth sailing during his tenure. There have bumps along the way— early, in the middle and even within the past month — and Ryan leaving the franchise will likely always hang on him.
Poor trades dogged Daniels in his first few seasons, when he tried to go for the postseason at a time when the franchise wasn’t good enough for such a jump into the deep end.
The one that many pointed to early was the swap of left-handed prospect John Danks for young right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who spent more time on the disabled list with the Rangers than he did pitching for them while Danks became a quality staring pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.
The trade that haunts Daniels most is the December 2005 trade that sent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, right-hander Chris Young and outfielder Terrmel Sledge to San Diego for right-handers Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and minor league catcher Billy Killion.
“The reality is people have lost their jobs over those types of deals,” Levine said.
Eaton made 13 starts as the Rangers were chasing their tails. Gonzalez became a superstar. Young just won a World Series game for Kansas City.
283 Home runs hit by Adrian Gonzalez since the Rangers traded him away in 2005
“The San Diego deal was a disaster,” Daniels said. “More so than even the result is that the thought process was flawed. Even if Eaton stays healthy, we still weren’t good enough. That was the genesis for the rebuild and taking a much bigger-picture look at the whole thing.”
There have been other rough patches, like the mishandling of team leader Michael Young through two unwanted position changes even though ultimately the Rangers were better off.
In December 2012, there was a 10-day stretch in which Daniels traded Young, missed out on right-hander Zack Greinke and outfielder Justin Upton, and then saw Josh Hamilton leave for the Los Angeles Angels during the annual holiday media luncheon.
That was one of the few instances when the media saw emotion from Daniels.
“I was sitting at the media luncheon and the news broke on Twitter,” he said. “I was embarrassed and a little pissed that it happened that way.”
Ian Kinsler called Daniels a sleazeball in a 2014 story after he learned through the media that he had been traded for Prince Fielder a season after being asked to move to first base.
Dave Magadan, out as hitting coach last month, told the Boston Globe that the decision wasn’t about moving closer to home, as the club said, but rather he, manager Jeff Banister and Daniels weren’t on the same page.
After Jackie Moore was fired as bench coach following the 2013 season, he accused Daniels of creating division in the organization, for spending too much time meddling with manager Ron Washington’s day-to-day decisions, and for his role in Ryan being stripped of his title as club president.
“I tried to stay above that the whole time, but at the same time I thought it was always important to do what I thought was right even though it wasn’t always popular,” Daniels said.
Neither Daniels nor Ryan has spoken in depth publicly about what happened, other than the idea that ownership’s decision to make Daniels president of baseball operations was designed to make life easier on Ryan.
Instead, Ryan felt that he had been left to be a powerless figurehead, and the only player who wears a Rangers cap in the Hall of Fame departed the organization after the 2013 season.
Daniels insists that there wasn’t constant warring between him and Ryan. Otherwise, the Rangers might not have been able to enjoy the success they had.
“No, not at all,” Daniels said. “There were only a couple of specific things that we really disagreed on, and they weren’t necessarily baseball-related.”
The bottom line
Through it all, good and bad, love him or hate him, the Rangers have won more under Daniels than they have under any other GM in the franchise’s existence.
Doug Melvin-led teams won as many division titles as Daniels’ teams, but the Rangers have a .522 winning percentage (846-775) and two appearances in the World Series under Daniels to a .504 winning clip and a 1-9 postseason record under Melvin.
In the past six seasons, beginning in 2010, the Rangers have four postseason appearances and played in a tiebreaker for a postseason berth in another season. Only two AL teams have won more games than the Rangers’ 525 since 2010.
Only GMs Brian Sabean (San Francisco Giants) and Brian Cashman (Yankees) have longer tenures with the same team.
In 2016, Jon Daniels will become the longest-tenured general manager in Rangers history with his 11th season, breaking a tie with Tom Grieve.
Yet, Daniels won’t give himself a passing grade.
“I’ve said before that I want to ultimately leave this job with the organization in better shape than when I got here,” Daniels said. “I would say incomplete. There are a lot of things that we’ve accomplished that I’m proud of. I think we’ve continued to get better over time. But we have some pretty big goals that we haven’t accomplished yet.”
The Rangers were close to the ultimate goal, winning the World Series in 2011, before they lost a heartbreaking Game 6 while one strike away from the title. Twice.
“I think about it all the time,” Daniels said.
While the World Series losses rate among his greatest regrets, they also serve as motivation to keep going. Daniels is under contract through 2018, plenty of time to get the Rangers to the promised land.
.540Rangers’ winning percentage (525-448) since 2010
At the same time, he has found a balance between work and family, a by-product of life experiences such as having a family and seeing those close to him cope with tragedy.
Daniels was especially moved by Arizona Rookie League coach Donzell McDonald losing a son in a drowning accident and by the untimely passing of ESPN-Dallas reporter Richard Durrett, who left behind two children and a wife who was pregnant with a third child.
Daniels tries to minimize how much of his children’s lives he misses, occasionally taking son Lincoln with him on Rangers road trips. When he can, Daniels cuts his morning office time short in order to spend more time with his family.
“You have kids, you come across different things in life, you see people who are less fortunate than you, it’s sobering at times,” Daniels said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t take it every bit as serious. I think about the Rangers all the time. How do we get better? How to we push forward?
“But I also have a perspective. I have three kids at home. I have a responsibility to a lot of people, not just my family but in the organization. There’s a lot of things in play in addition to that night’s win or loss. I didn’t have that perspective at 28.”
Daniels has come a long way from when he was handed the reins of the franchise 10 seasons ago. And, love him or hate him, so have the Rangers.
Jon Daniels’ best and worst
1. Mark Teixeira deal: The one that got Daniels on the map was the seven-player trade in 2007 with Atlanta for the Rangers’ best player. In return, they received three key pieces to their World Series teams — shortstop Elvis Andrus, left-hander Matt Harrison and closer Neftali Feliz.
2. Cliff Lee deal: The Rangers pulled the July shocker in 2010 when they landed the ace left-hander from Seattle in a six-player trade. Lee was only so-so in the regular season, but he flourished in the first two rounds of the playoffs to lead the Rangers to the World Series.
3. Josh Hamilton deal: Edinson Volquez was one of the Rangers’ famed DVD pitching prospects, and Hamilton was the former first overall pick with a long, sordid history with drugs. The two were swapped, along with lefty reliever Danny Ray Herrera, in December 2007, and Hamilton became arguably the game’s best player the next five seasons.
1. Adrian Gonzalez to San Diego: Looking to hit big in his first year, Daniels shipped first-base prospect Adrian Gonzalez and right-hander Chris Young to the Padres for righty Adam Eaton and closer Akinori Otsuka. Eaton made 13 starts, with a 5.12 ERA, and Gonzalez became a superstar. Young just pitched in the World Series.
2. John Danks for Brandon McCarthy: Another move geared more for the now than where the Rangers needed to go. Danks was a first-round pick. McCarthy had pitched in the majors in 2006. Danks became a quality starter for the White Sox. McCarthy was oft-injured and eventually let go.
3. Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks: The Angels had just acquired Zack Greinke, and suddenly Daniels felt he needed a starter. Dempster won seven games but couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead in the regular-season finale as the Rangers lost the division to Oakland. Christian Villanueva was the Cubs’ target in the deal, but Hendricks was part of their postseason rotation.
1. Adrian Beltre: A six-year, $96 million deal was panned by some as another Rangers payday for a Scott Boras client. Instead, Beltre has been a producer, a Gold Glove winner, a leader and the toughest son of a gun in the league.
2. Colby Lewis: Here’s what the Rangers got for $7 million over three years, from 2010 to 2012: 30 wins, 3.93 ERA, two trips to the World Series, four postseason wins, a lasting relationship that will be tested this off-season by free agency.
3. Vladimir Guerrero: The Rangers’ one-time nemesis left Anaheim for the 2010 season, giving the Rangers another big bat in the middle of the lineup. For $6.5 million guaranteed plus some $4 million in bonuses, Guerrero drove in 115 runs despite having MVP Josh Hamilton ahead of him in the lineup.
1. Vicente Padilla: After 15 wins in 2006 following a trade from Philadelphia, Padilla signed a three-year, $33.75 million deal. He promptly posted a 5.76 ERA in 2007, a 4.64 ERA in three seasons, and became so much of a distraction that he was released in 2009.
2. Lance Berkman: The aging slugger was coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season but had helped beat the Rangers in the 2011 World Series. He signed a one-year, $10 million deal to hit in the middle of the lineup. He played 73 games, the offense struggled, and the Rangers’ three-year playoff run ended.
3. Kevin Millwood: Coming off the 2005 season as the AL’s ERA leader, Millwood signed a five-year, $60 million deal to be the Rangers’ ace. He was, albeit during four unremarkable pitching seasons. His best was his last, posting a 3.28 ERA that allowed fifth year in his contract to vest and led to a trade from the bankrupt Rangers.