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“In the face of adversity, JD forges forward, emboldened by the unflagging belief that the Rangers will achieve greatness.” – Rangers Assistant GM Thad Levine
Passionate fan bases demand hope. They want championship meat on their plates. They want rings. They need to believe that the mere chance of something spectacular is actually possible. They’ve got to have it or they simply can’t buy in. And if the GM’s of their favorite teams aren’t delivering the goods, then off with their heads!
In that regard, Jon Daniels and his staff have been some of the finest, safe-necked hope brokers in sports since 2010. After all, a front office that can contend year after year over an extended period while simultaneously restocking the cupboard with high-end homegrown prospects is the sports equivalent to a money tree.
But due to the overwhelming and utterly widespread disaster of the injury-plagued 2014 season, directly on the heels of the complicated departure of local legend Nolan Ryan, the sizeable credibility cache for the guys with the magical gardening skills was seemingly erased overnight by an angry mob.
Was this the new trend? Had the franchise officially fallen off a cliff? 2014 had been such a colossal wholesale catastrophe that four consecutive 90-win seasons, including back-to-back trips to the World Series, were now instantly invisible in the rear view mirror for many fans.
Nolan was long gone, and Wash would eventually have to step down as well, which left all bloodshot eyes beneath furrowed brows focused firmly on Jon Daniels — the kid from New York!
NEW YORK?!?!?! Get a rope!
But wait. Hold that rope for a second. 2014 was a complete heart-stomping disaster for the Rangers faithful. But it wasn’t due to misguided transactions by an underperforming front office group. It was due to… INJURYMAGEDDON!
In 2014, Rangers injuries combined for an MLB-leading 2,281 days lost. Arizona had the 2nd most at 1,448. That’s a sizable disparity that helps to put the ugly picture in the broken frame. According to the Dallas Morning News, Texas lost 13 players to season-ending injuries in 2014. THIRTEEN! Boat, meet iceberg. Iceberg, meet boat. Rangers fans were left fighting over uncomfortable spots on lifeboats.
2015 brought new life and new opportunity. Kind of. The Rangers would be forced to bounce back without arguably their best player, Yu Darvish, who was lost for the season after getting Tommy John-ed. With the stirring mob now evaluating the merits of a “Nolan Ryan Curse,” the 2015 season started off like a Dan Bailey steel-toed kick to the coconuts.
Talented lefty Derek Holland, expected to do the heavy lifting to make up for the loss of Darvish, lasted just one inning before hitting the DL for approximately four months. Their closer quickly closed the door on his career in Texas, as Neftali Feliz once again failed to capitalize on a major opportunity. Their leadoff hitter/break out candidate Leonys Martin had a paltry .265 on base percentage at the all-star break.
Their starting left fielder on Opening Day, Ryan Rua, got banged up early and had just 55 at-bats in the first half, in which he hit just .182. Their starting second baseman Rougned Odor had already been demoted to the minors by mid May. Their bullpen was pathetic and their rotation featured 36-year old journeyman Wandy Rodriguez.
But even more concerning, three of their highest paid players were struggling mightily. Adrian Beltre hit just .205 in April. That was more than twice that of Shin Soo Choo (.096) who was experiencing a sudden and unexpected confidence crisis. And Elvis Andrus had lost focus, interest, or both.
The Rangers put up a brutal 7-14 record in April. They were zombies. Lifeless. Hopeless.
Now, just to quickly recap this important crossroads moment in the story:
2009: 87 wins. While not 90+ wins, it would have been enough to get the Rangers into the playoffs if the 2nd wild card had existed that season.
2010: 90 wins. Trip to the World Series.
2011: 96 wins. Trip to the World Series.
2012: 93 wins. Lost WC game to the Orioles.
2013: 91 wins. Lost tie-breaker to the Rays for the 2nd WC.
2014: Epic mushroom cloud disaster. 26 total DL stints, 2nd in the majors. The Rangers used an MLB record 64 players, including 40 different pitchers. FORTY. Also an MLB record.
2015: 7-14 in April. 9.5 games back in the AL West on May 20th. 9 games back as late as July 22nd. Collapsing. Spiraling. Dying. Insert the sound of a large plane experiencing a nosedive.
While some front offices might’ve started reaching for parachutes, this group remained calm. They had too much confidence in the flight plan to panic.
“It was the perfect time to stay the course,” said Levine. “I always felt that if the teams in the AL West let us hang around, we had a real chance to surprise them late when we got healthier.”
The story of the 2015 Texas Rangers getting their act together starts with the guy Daniels hired to man the steering wheel, Jeff Banister. Good teams often take on the personalities of their leaders, and “Banny” simply doesn’t understand the word “quit”. Though many rookie skippers might’ve been intimidated by the terrible start, Banister embraced the challenge.
To interact with him is to immediately understand why he won the job. He’s a cross between Clint Eastwood, Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. He looks you square in the eye with a heart-warming smile while his giant hand swallows yours with a firm handshake. He doesn’t waste a single word. It’s as if each one was just hand-crafted at an awesome work bench in a dream garage somewhere. He’s intelligent, eloquent and without question a leader of men. Have one conversation with him and you’ll be asking him which wall to run through.
Whereas Tigers manager Jim Leyland struggled to connect with Prince Fielder, Banister, a master communicator, did not. The big man quickly volunteered to DH and let Mitch Moreland, a better defender, play first base. Both players have thrived. It was a team-first gesture of epic proportions. Motivating superstar players can be dicey at times for even the most experienced managers. But Banister, a passionate scholar of leadership philosophies, easily connects with just about anyone he comes in contact with, and as a result, his players absolutely love, respect and trust him.
Billed as a new age manager with old school roots, the positive interaction between the front office and the dugout has been off the charts, as advertised, thanks to Banister. It’s progressive, aggressive and impressive. His unique skill set and ability to comfortably rub elbows in both NASA’s Mission Control Center and a major league clubhouse has allowed the Rangers to operate on a maximum efficiency setting. Brilliant minds are examining data in search of competitive advantages in hopes of sparking conversations with baseball lifers, and visa versa. It a perfectly choreographed dance between cutting edge analytics and old school baseball grit that appears to be resulting in a well-balanced harmony.
“Many people say they’re open minded, that they want others’ opinions,” said Daniels when asked about organizational synergy with Banister. “He walks the walk. He seeks it out. He’s disappointed when someone has a thought and doesn’t bring it to the table. There are times I worry about him being overwhelmed with info and opinions, but he’s told me before,”If I can’t handle that, I’m not the guy you thought you hired.”
Even with Banny’s steady hand in place, there were holes with the roster that needed to be filled. But before Daniels could add any missing pieces, they needed their under-performing heavy lifters to return to form. And fortunately for everyone involved – they did. Before long, Choo’s milk carton confidence returned, and it seems like he’s been on base ever since. Maybe it was sound advice from a family member; maybe it was Banny picking and choosing spots for him to succeed, brick by brick. Maybe it was all of the above. Regardless of what sparked the change, Choo has been en fuego. He’s currently hitting well over .400 in September.
Around the same time, third base coach Tony Beasley reportedly ignited a spark in Andrus that inspired a return to the dynamic defensive shortstop Rangers fans had fallen in love with years ago. He added a leg kick and started using Josh Hamilton’s heavier bat and became an effective hitter again. Odor came back from the minors a completely new man, blistering the ball relentlessly upon returning. You could now make the case that he’s a Top 5 second baseman in the game. He’s 21. Beltre, who had to learn to play with extreme pain in his hand, has hit at a .308 clip for the past two months.
Suddenly, many of the internal issues that derailed the early season had been turned around. A growing list of negatives had now reversed course and could be counted on as positives.
As for masterful front office maneuvers, there have been plenty in 2015. A personal favorite of mine is watching the Angels pay Josh Hamilton somewhere in the neighborhood of $23 million dollars per year to play for the Rangers. Meanwhile, the Rangers are paying him roughly just $2 million per season. Despite battling injuries, he’s already had 6 game-winning RBI, including two walkoff hits since returning to Texas.
A Rule 5 rookie, human lightning bolt Delino DeShields, has had a massive impact. According to Jared Sandler’s math, the Rangers offense has averaged almost 2 runs more per game when he starts. A waiver claim, Shawn Tolleson, has become a surprisingly reliable closer with over 30 saves.
Despite finding a few diamonds in the rough to help turn things around, most experts expected Texas to be sellers at the trade deadline by moving Yovani Gallardo. But even though his team had yet to truly find their stride, Daniels wasn’t in the mood to panic.
“In moments of crisis, JD makes excellent decisions,” said Levine. “The more balls that are in the air, the more creative and compelling his juggling becomes. He’s created a culture in which we expend our resources focused on how to win today’s game rather than be distracted by why we may have lost yesterday’s game.”
Instead of going the seller route and trading Gallardo, Daniels was somehow able to reel in an absolute monster by trading for Cole Hamels. Acquiring an ace is rare enough. Watching a GM acquire an ace under extended team control (possibly all the way through 2019) is like watching Bigfoot ride a unicorn through your living room. It’s unheard of. It just doesn’t happen. Amazingly, Daniels was able to do it without giving up any of his organization’s top three prospects (Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Chi Chi Gonzalez).
In addition to Hamels, he was able to get the Phillies to not only take back Matt Harrison’s problematic contract but also send cash back to Texas as well. Oh, and he also convinced them to include Jake Diekman, a fireballing lefty who has helped transform the Rangers bullpen into a true strength of the team.
Daniels also quickly revamped the Rangers bench with moves for Mike Napoli, Will Venable and Drew Stubbs. But perhaps more importantly, just 30 minutes before the trade deadline, he pulled off a “WHO?” trade by acquiring Sam Dyson from the Marlins. Daniels had been watching film on him and thought he could be an absolute force in the pen if he’d focus primarily on throwing his electric power sinker. He was right.
“We leave no stone unturned when evaluating decisions that impact the franchise,” said Levine. “People speak of the value of chemistry in the clubhouse. Equally important is chemistry in the decision making group. Since we have the utmost respect for each other and we are collectively committed to the common cause of building a champion in Texas, we are able to ask the difficult questions that help us make the right decisions.”
With plenty of baseball left to play, no one in the Rangers organization is counting chickens. But the nosedive has been averted. The organization is contending and the minors remain well stocked with high-celling prospects. Things are going so well for Daniels these days that pitchfork and torch kiosks outside of Globe Life Park aren’t seeing much action anymore.
“Our management philosophy is pretty simple,” said Daniels. “Hire good people, treat them well, and let them do their jobs. No magic formulas, no shortcuts, just good people and hard work. It’s led us to a point where people enjoy being here, genuinely care for each other, and want to succeed together. It’s not a Kumbaya thing though – we are fiercely competitive and push each other everyday.”
What Daniels and company have done in Texas for the last half-decade plus is nothing short of remarkable. It hasn’t always fit the dramatic narrative, and there have certainly been bumps in the road, but it should be pretty clear by now that a very talented group is once again guiding the Texas Rangers towards October baseball.
Ben Rogers co-hosts The Ben and Skin Show, weekdays 3-7pm on 1053 The Fan in Dallas-Fort Worth. You can follow him on Twitter here: @BenRogers
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