Southlake's Jon Daniels Covers All Bases for the Texas Rangers
Money can’t buy love, and it takes more than money to buy championship fulfillment in major league baseball. According to General Manager of the Texas Rangers and Southlake resident Jon Daniels it takes much more than expensive free agent acquisitions of top Major League talent to make a winning team. For decades the Texas Rangers relied heavily on an all or nothing “swing for the fences” approach, spending millions on a few big name players and hoping the gambles would make up for organizational shortcomings. In recent years financially strapped teams like the Rangers and the Oakland Athletics have adopted a philosophy of “Moneyball” where statistical analysis is utilized to root out baseball’s most undervalued players.
After becoming the Rangers eighth General Manager in 2005 at the age of 28, Jon took it upon himself to not only re-structure the line-up sheet but also the entire organization’s approach to scouting and acquiring players. He would use a combination of statistics, standard analysis, and plain old hard work to make the most of the Rangers. Now, tenured in his position but still the youngest general manager in baseball, the 34 year old veteran has made his mark while propelling an under achieving, financially bankrupt organization to back-to-back World Series appearances.
An Ivy League talent considered one of the best minds in baseball at any age, several of Jon’s own reports have been publicly short-listed for GM positions of their own. In a recent meeting amongst fellow Southlake Executives, this former Executive of the Year spoke about the re-structuring process, the development of several key Rangers acquisitions and the recent $111 million signing of Japanese phenom Yu Darvish.
A League of his Own: from Little to Ivy to the Bigs
Growing up in Queens within the shadows of Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, Daniels spent his youth collecting cards of the ’86 World Series Champions and playing catcher for his little league team. Peaking a few sunflower seeds short of six feet tall and with a build more reminiscent of “stickball” than the conventional slugger, Daniels did not play organized baseball beyond the eighth grade. However, he did possess a catcher’s gritty attitude and mental toughness that could have been a great predictor of future success had there been a scout around during freshman team tryouts at Manhattan’s academically privileged Hunter College High School.
Fortunately for the Texas Rangers, and their long-time fans, the self-professed kid who couldn’t hit followed a new and different path to the big leagues. The Cornell ’99 graduate’s road less traveled has become the new highway of an academic elite that boasts successful commuters by the likes of Yale’s Theo Epstein (of Boston Red Sox fame and currently with the Chicago Cubs) Princeton’s Mark Shapiro (Cleveland Indians) and Harvard’s Paul DePodesta (New York Mets).
While at Cornell studying applied economics, he and roommate A.J. Preller became fraternity brothers and lifelong friends. A.J. focused much of his college studies towards a career in the major leagues going so far as to author an undergraduate term paper on Baseball in Latin America. Preller would also go on to earn college credits through a semester interning for the Philadelphia Phillies. Although studying economics, Daniels an avid baseball fan, did sit in on some of Preller’s sports related courses.
After college, Daniels took on a junior executive role working for Allied Domecq, the parent company of Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts, while his friend Preller began serving as a paid intern with the Philadelphia Phillies, if you could call it “being paid”. Jon was making good money, but A.J. was working their dream job, soaking up every bit of baseball knowledge he could and loving every minute of it. It wasn’t long before Daniels decided to accompany his friend on sporting jaunts much like he did in college, but instead of classrooms this time it was baseball’s famed winter meetings. It was during these meetings that Daniels met with the Colorado Rockies who offered him his first position in professional baseball, a six-month internship earning just $275 a week. He would go on to tell Fast Company in an earlier interview, “I had to take it. Absolutely had to. Because I was learning early on that money definitely doesn’t equal fulfillment.”
The Rangers Rising Son
After the conclusion of his internship with the Rockies, Jon’s desire was even stronger to land a full-time gig in baseball. As fate would have it, he interviewed with then Rangers GM John Hart who was immediately impressed. Daniels joined the Rangers organization in 2002 as a baseball operations assistant accepting a salary that still didn’t replace what he walked away from, but he would now be living his own dream.
Amongst the better acquisitions in the Hart era, Daniels was a budding star and would go on to earn a promotion each season. He became the Director of Baseball Operations by the end of the 2003 season and Assistant General Manager under Hart by July the year after. In October of 2005, then owner Tom Hicks announced Daniels would succeed Hart who retired after the Rangers less than stellar 79-83 season. Ascending to the role of general manager at the age of 28 years and 41 days Daniels became the youngest general manager in baseball history, beating out Theo Epstein by less than a year.
On taking the job in 2005 Daniels said, “There were two questions I was most regularly asked by the media; One, when are you guys going to get some pitching? And two, how old are you?” Yet as he turns 35 this August, Jon still holds the youthful title in spite of also being one of the longest tenured GMs in the game.
More than Moneyball- Setting a System for Success
For the young Daniels the early going wasn’t easy. He had been saddled with an unenviably high-priced, low producing roster along with one of the games weakest farm systems. In attempts to bolster the roster and the pitching rotation Jon traded away such talent as Alfonso Soriano, Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez – moves that didn’t necessarily make matters better. It was determined there was nothing to lose and a “Strategic Teardown” was formulated.
Daniels said, “As a group we decided to change the perception of the one dimensional all or nothing, slug fest type of team. We had done that for decades and it didn’t work. We had to reassess how we did everything, there was no foundation to what we did, no scouting structure.”
In order to change a decades old mindset Jon had to sell ownership that instead of gambling on big, expensive free agents, they should pour more of their resources into scouting and development. Up until then the Scouting and Development chart included three independent silos that rarely, if ever, shared information. Amateur Scouting which looked primarily at High School, Junior College and College athletes never spoke with Professional Scouts involved with minor and major league players while all along International Scouting was not a high priority.
With this system in place young players were recruited and acquired by the Amateur Scouts yet when it came to putting trades together, the Professional Scouts made the moves without consultation. Daniels says, “Lost were years of amateur scouting information gleaned from following players from their beginnings. It didn’t make any sense.”
Under Daniel’s leadership, all three departments would be brought under one roof with his one time college roommate, fraternity brother and confidant A.J. Preller at the helm. Preller, the Rangers’ new Director of Scouting had actually broken into the league first and honed his early skills working for the Phillies, and Los Angeles Dodgers before being asked by Daniels to come to Arlington. The two agreed the goal was to stop “flying by the seat of the pants,” as the Rangers looked to develop a system of collaboration amongst their collective resources.
The process has taken several years, and the Rangers did stumble out of the blocks with some questionable trades but what followed was a rash of quality moves involving most every facet of the executive offices, scouting, and player development.
All the Right Moves: Trading Teixeira
Probably the most prolific move of the Daniels era was the 2007 trade of slugging All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves. The key to this deal was not an immediate return of major league ready talent, but four minor league prospects barely on the radar of most teams. In the playoff bound Braves, Daniels and the Rangers organization had found a team that not only had a need for an impact player like Teixeira, but also possessed a rich farm system of minor leaguers to pull from.
Via the build up of the Rangers international scouting they already knew about the triple digit radar gun readings on the Dominican fireballer Neftali Feliz. What’s more amateur scouts in North Carolina had a wealth of information on young Matt Harrison, knowing he was a solid athlete from a good family. On both, the Rangers culled their analysis over time- seeing these players at their best and worst, all the while getting to know each player both on the field and off. Daniels and company no longer wanted to rely on the luck of showing up on a good day or just a gut feeling. They wanted to mitigate the risk with as much personal information and statistics as possible. That required a lot of hard work.
In return for Teixeira the Rangers acquired Harrison, Feliz and an up and coming short stop- Elvis Andrus. By 2009, all three were paying dividends especially Andrus and Feliz who were both named to the 2010 All-Star team. According to Daniels, “The Teixeira trade was the first time the combined scouting operation paid dividends.”
The list of top-rated talent in any draft year is short and most major league scouting departments will generally agree how to best use an early pick on a can’t miss guy like Teixeira was when he left Georgia Tech as the national collegiate player of the year in 2000. However, where scouts really make their money is on the not-so-obvious late round selections.
“I challenged all scouts to come up with a ‘gut feel’ guy,” said Daniels, “find your guy and do the extra homework on them.” The direction was clear, to watch these developing players in all aspects of sports and life – watch them play other sports, look for leadership skills, even meet with guidance counselors to develop a more rounded approach to looking at talent.
Through it all, one scout came up with a 6’1”, 160-pound young man that looked good on the diamond and on the basketball court. He was a good kid from an honest hard-working family, so the Rangers felt good signing him with a twenty-fifth round pick in the 2006 draft. That kid, Derek “Dutch” Holland now stands 6’2” and weighs in at 210-pounds. In 2011 he posted a 16-5 record but more impressively made his mark while pitching eight and a third scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series against St. Louis.
Shaping an All-Star
The Rangers would hit the mark once again by thinking outside the box. Statistical analysis would not say much about Dominican born Alexi Ogando except that he was an outfielder that couldn’t hit. Yet, scouting reports did make note of his excellent throwing arm that could possibly be converted to pitching in the American League where its designated hitting rules would ensure he never even had to pick up a bat. Despite trouble getting a visa for entry into the country, the Rangers took a flier on converting him into a pitcher. It was a risk, taking a player that couldn’t hit, couldn’t pitch, and couldn’t even get in the country, but it was one that paid off with this fireballing 2011 All-Star selection.
The Next Level
The extensive hard work, brutal travel, mind boggling player acquisitions and development were all building blocks to constructing a solid foundation for the Rangers future. What has been built and what is to come now rests in the golden arm of Japanese import Yu Darvish.
The last big Japanese import to hit the scene was Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 and the Rangers were in the discussion, before being outbid by the Boston Red Sox. In a way it was a positive moment for the up and coming Rangers executive team. They didn’t know the makeup of Matsuzaka, and had too many questions on the table making a potential move that much more of a risk.
When Yu Darvish emerged as Japan’s next top prospect Daniels and the Rangers vowed to leave no questions unanswered. If Darvish was on the mound, the Rangers were usually there and on off days they were speaking with his pitching coach, manager, teammates and even those who played against him. In Daniel’s words, “We did our homework. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it helps minimize risks as much as possible. Something we couldn’t have done years ago. [Acquiring Yu] Darvish is a result of getting our system together and ownership trusting the system that has been put in place.”
So when the time came, the Rangers were ready and with the support of ownership made a record $51.7 million dollar posting bid to the Nippon-Ham Fighters winning the rights to be the first to negotiate with the 25 year old phenom. Seizing the opportunity Daniels signed Darvish to a six year $60 million contract. In all the Rangers paid more than $111 million, about $8 million more than the Red Sox spent on Matsuzaka just a few years earlier. Daniels says of his new 6’5” 227-pound signee, “he is a physical monster and an unbelievable presence.”
Contrary to the Oscar nominated movie “Moneyball” Daniels believes, “There is no magic formula, just hard work and plenty of travel expenses in making a solid recommendation to ownership. Why we are having success, its no statistic, no fluke, not me, not Nolan [Ryan]- it is outstanding people that are all doing their jobs.”
With back-to-back trips to the World Series, many of baseball’s top insiders list the 2012 Rangers at or very near the top of their preseason power rankings. With the addition of Darvish and the continued development both on the field and in the clubhouse the Rangers and Jon Daniels seem to be making all the right moves.