ARLINGTON, Texas — What Jon Daniels did during his time as the general manager and later President of Baseball Operations in Texas was nothing short of remarkable. He was the youngest GM in baseball history at the time of his hiring in 2005 at the age of 28. He engineered and commandeered the second golden age of Texas Rangers baseball, starting with the infamous Mark Teixeira trade deadline deal of 2007.
With that trade, Daniels had kickstarted the process of putting together the only World Series-bound teams in franchise history, which eventually culminated with the signing of a Rangers Hall of Famer and future MLB Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre to a five-year, $80 million free-agent deal.
It was that signing, of the then 31-year old third baseman, that would be called out as risky with media, fans, and even the commissioner of the sport questioning Daniels’ strategy saying that Beltre was an overpay, a flash in the pan, and a contract-year conman who would not become a key contributor in Texas.
They were wrong, obviously, and retrospective analysis would call the contract a steal and a value signing for JD. But the splurge on Beltre triggered a decade-long trend for the Rangers where they opted to look for the value-signing over paying top dollar for available talent.
The process started the winter after the fateful 2011 World Series run, with Daniels signing veteran (read: old) closer Joe Nathan. Nathan, in 2011, had an injury plagued year in his final run with Minnesota and posted a 4.84 ERA in just 48 appearances. The gamble was that the then 37-year old could still return to form and provide stability at the back end of the bullpen.
It worked, with Nathan spending two years in Texas while saving 80 games. But it was still a gamble. So, too, was the signing of veteran starter Roy Oswalt shortly after the season started.
That definitively did not work, as Oswalt, who had come off of a back injury with Philadelphia in 2011, only made 17 appearances for Texas and posted a 5.80 ERA, amidst other rumors that he wasn’t a good clubhouse fit.
In 2013, it was Lance Berkman, Jason Frasor, A.J. Pierzynski, Joakim Soria, Geovany Soto and Jeff Baker. All solid hands, but all perceived as “bargain” deals, and none the top tier available names at their respective positions.
In 2014, it was J.P. Arencibia, Adam Rosales, Joe Saunders and Daniel Bard – reclamation projects, bargain deals, and, except for Shin-Soo Choo as an outlier, fairly under the radar signings. In 2015, Joe Beimel, Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Ludwick, Ross Ohlendorf, Kyle Blanks were brought aboard. In 2016, A.J. Griffin, Tony Barnette, Justin Ruggiano, Ike Davis, Kyle Lohse were the acquisitions.
So on, so forth, the story continued. Texas became something of an “Island of Misfit Toys,” a place where transactions, if they panned out, would be seen as genius moves from a progressive general manager, but if they fizzled out, would be low-risk moves that saved payroll.
JD won a lot of those bets and had the Rangers back on top of the American League West in 2015 and 2016 but eventually the house of cards tumbled and ignited a lengthy rebuild effort that began in earnest following a disappointing 2017 season.
Cut to 2022 and Daniels was dismissed in the middle of a season where he was coming off of a winter where he finally went for the big fish in the pond – Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. The team was still falling short on the field, however. Though the plan was set in motion with 2023 in mind, the losing eventually called for a change by ownership’s standards and ownership wasn’t going to fire themselves.
Regardless, the old mentality of gambling on bargain players that might strike gold, or at least be competent, needed to go. That’s why, when given the chance to go after pitchers like Jacob deGrom or Carlos Rodon, when given the chance to go after Aaron Judge or other big bats, you pursue those opportunities.
Can you focus on second-tier free agents like Jameson Taillon or Kevin Kiermaier if the first plan doesn’t work out? Absolutely, and you should be looking at them as Plan Bs. But should they be the primary target of the offseason? No.
Texas needs to graduate beyond the idea of getting bargain deals or waiting to see if certain players fall within a certain price range. There are the makings of a playoff contending team in Texas, and Chris Young and company need to be marketing themselves as such, while Ray Davis and company need to be willing to front the cash to get the Rangers back to October. They made the commitment last winter and they can’t afford to backslide to old familiar dealings this offseason.
The Philadelphia Phillies provided the proof of concept with their postseason run. They signed Bryce Harper while mired in a rebuild and coupled him a year later with a big free agent deal for risky starter Zack Wheeler. Ahead of 2021, Philly re-signed star catcher J.T. Realmuto to a top-of-the-market extension and then they added Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in free agency for the 2022 season.
A couple of weeks ago, the Phillies were a couple of games from winning it all because they spent and then spent again and then continued to spend.
Is Harper, Wheeler, and gang going to be liabilities by the time their final years roll around? Yeah, more than likely. Will it matter if the Phillies find those extra two wins and claim a World Series between now and then?
The Texas Rangers should be asking themselves the same question.
Do you think the Rangers will make the needed changes to see their rebuild effort become a success? Share your thoughts with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.