The Winter Meetings are known for free agent megadeals and blockbuster trades. But for those seeking employment in baseball, the networking opportunities are just as important. In 2001, a young business major took advantage of this annual event and secured his first job in baseball as an intern with the Colorado Rockies. Nine years later, his Texas Rangers advanced to the first World Series in franchise history.
Jon Daniels spent just one year in the Rockies organization before Rangers General Manager John Hart made him an assistant in baseball operations in Texas. The veteran GM relied on the recent graduate to negotiate multiyear contracts with some of the Rangers’ most important players at the time, including Michael Young and Hank Blalock.
Daniels thrived in his new job, catching the attention of then owner Tom Hicks, who viewed him as a rising star in the front office. However, his next opportunity for advancement would not come until the 2004 season.
Grady Fuson had been the Director of Player Development for two years, but was growing impatient with the Rangers’ succession plan. Fuson was under the impression he would take over for Hart sooner rather than later, but the move was pushed back with the club in contention. In July of that year, Fuson left the organization and Daniels was promoted to Assistant GM.
A dramatic change in the direction of the club had taken place, and no one had noticed. Daniels continued to negotiate contracts and became more involved with player development, but it was still Hart’s team. The kid would have to wait his turn, but he didn’t have to wait long.
At the age of 28, Daniels became the youngest general manager in baseball history following a disappointing 2005 season for the organization. The Rangers had failed to build on the previous season’s success, and the club decided to make a change. Hicks had always thought highly of Daniels, so convincing the owner to take a chance on the young executive was not difficult for Hart.
Daniels’ tenure got off to a rocky start with a series of second-rate trades in which the Rangers received marginal return. Prior to the 2006 season, Daniels dealt top prospect Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young and Terrmel Sledge to the San Diego Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. This move was the biggest mistake Daniels made in the early years of his tenure, but it was also a learning experience.
At the 2006 trade deadline, Daniels sent a package built around fallen closer Francisco Cordero to the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Lee and then-prospect Nelson Cruz. Lee left the organization via free agency that offseason, but Cruz has developed into one of the premier power hitters in the game for the Rangers. Daniels had learned the importance of the secondary pieces in a multiplayer deal.
Before the 2007 season, Daniels realized the Rangers needed a complete overhaul to become competitive. He told the owner the team needed to rebuild from the ground up. Hicks fired the last GM on the spot who said such a thing, so this was a risky proposition. Daniels received the owner’s blessing and began executing his plans immediately.
He started building one of the best scouting and player development programs in the game to address the club’s depleted farm system. Daniels knew the best way he could build a contender was through the draft. He also invested substantial resources in the Latin American markets.
During the 2007 season, Daniels used his best trade chip to add a number of prospects to the farm system. Mark Teixeira, the Rangers star first baseman, had made it clear he would not be returning to the club once his contract was up. Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay were traded to the Atlanta Braves in a blockbuster deal that continues to affect the Rangers roster to this day.
This was a noteworthy move by Daniels, who recognized his club was far away contention. He targeted prospects with high ceilings over those who could reach the majors quickly. Jarrod Saltalamacchia may have been the central piece of what Texas received in the deal, but Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz have all become key players for the club.
In another offseason move, Daniels acquired Josh Hamilton for once-heralded pitching prospect Edison Volquez. The move sent shockwaves through a fan base which had been told repeatedly that Volquez was a future ace. For an organization known for offense, the idea of trading a pitcher for another hitter was not well received.
The Rangers were ready to compete for a division championship in 2010, but bankruptcy proceedings for Hicks hampered the club for the first half of the season.
Daniels had grown used to working with a minimal budget, but with the team in ownership limbo, he would face even greater challenges. His rebuilding efforts had produced the first contender in over a decade, but the Rangers still needed help at the trade deadline.
Daniels was looking for an impact starter to put his team over the top, but with Major League Baseball paying the bills, he could not afford to add much salary. Cliff Lee was the best pitcher available, though the Yankees were the favorites to acquire the ace. Rumors were swirling in early July that the Yankees had struck a deal with the Mariners for Lee, but Daniels was determined to get his club the starting pitcher they needed.
The impending trade between the Yankees and Mariners fell apart at the 11th hour. Daniels jumped at the opportunity and sent prospects Justin Smoak and Blake Beavan to Seattle in exchange for Lee. Other organizations expressed their objections to the move due to the Rangers financial struggles, but it was approved by Commissioner Bud Selig. Daniels had acquired the top pitcher available while remaining within his budgetary limits.
The move proved to be a difference maker for Texas, as Lee was exceptional down the stretch and in the playoffs. The Rangers went on to lose in the World Series to the Giants, but Daniels had completed a rebuilding project that began just four years earlier.
With Daniels at the helm, the Rangers won back-to-back American League Championships. They have reached the postseason three times, and will likely remain a contender for many years to come.
The Rangers have lost much of the core group of players responsible for their two World Series berths, but with the latest crop of youngsters, led by Leonys Martin and Jurickson Profar, the Rangers' future remains bright.
Tom Hicks made many mistakes when he owned the Rangers, but taking a chance on Daniels has proven to be the best decision in the history of the franchise.