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Daniels' strong winter pays off as Rangers get back to ALCS


ST. PETERSBURG -- Jon Daniels recalls that when he got the Rangers general manager job in 2005 he heard two questions over and over: 1) When are you going to get some pitching? and 2) How old are you?

The answers now are, 1) he has plenty of pitching, much more than anyone thought, and 2) 34 -- although he was a historically young 28 years and 41 days when he completed his crazy-quick rise and got the GM job.

Daniels remains the youngest GM in baseball (he's several months younger than the Rays' Andrew Friedman, his counterpart in the ALDS) but is also now viewed as one of the shrewdest GMs in the game. If he hadn't just signed a four-year extension, he'd be mentioned for the Cubs and Angels GM jobs that are open. But the boy from Bayside section of Queens seems embedded in Arlington.

Both Daniels and the Rangers have come a long way from the days when he was derisively called Boy Wonder, or worse, Jon Boy. The Cornell grad originally got into baseball when he left a job as a junior executive at Dunkin Donuts' parent company to take a $1,200-a-month gig with the Colorado Rockies, where he stayed in someone's basement while learning the baseball business. Now, after seeing his team wrap up the ALDS on the sixth anniversary of his appointment as GM, he has a date in the American League Championship Series the second straight year.

Daniels has assembled his own superb staff, including assistant GM Thad Levine, the guy who showed him the ropes with the Rockies, and his college buddy A.J. Preller, the player personnel director who never stops working. (Confession: I have a soft spot for the Texas guys. Twelve years ago, I met both Daniels and Preller at the Winter Meetings in Anaheim when both had just graduated from Cornell, were looking for low-level baseball jobs and handed me their business cards. Well, they started low, anyway. Daniels' early move to become a GM inspired his father to once tell Newsday's Ken Davidoff that it was his proudest moment since Jon's bar mitzvah.)

If there were rocky moments at the start -- trading former No. 1 overall draft choice Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres in a package is the one that still burns Daniels -- but nobody has done a better job than him and his guys the past few years. The once-in-a-lifetime trade of Mark Teixeira to the Braves in 2007 for a package of five quality players that included All-Stars Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz and starting pitcher Matt Harrison seems absurd now and kick-started something great.

That deal turned out to be so spectacular that it overshadowed another one that was also pretty special, the swap of quirky pitcher Edinson Volquez to Cincinnati for mega talent Josh Hamilton before the 2008 season. In that one, Daniels took advantage of the Reds' medical team, which believed Hamilton could not stay healthy. While both those players started great with their new teams, Hamilton, maybe the most talented player in the game, has gone on to win an MVP award and become the anchor of one of the best lineups in baseball while Volquez is the one who failed a drug test (for a steroid) and is trending downward.

The Rangers, who perpetually think big, started last winter holding out a small hope they could squeeze two big-time free agents, incumbent ace Cliff Lee plus star third baseman Adrian Beltre, into their budget. They tried hard to retain Lee, bumping their offer to about $120 million over six years (it was a bit more than that but some of the money was deferred) from their opening $100 million for five years before Lee surprised almost everyone by going back to the mysterious, pitching-strong Phillies for $120 million over five years. "We saw it would take seven years on our part, and that was past the point we were comfortable with,'' Daniels said. Nolan Ryan, the team's president, is said to have wanted to stop at five, which is still two more than the all-time great ever got as a player, though for a time he was the highest player in the game. But Ryan said, "Anytime you lose a pitcher of that magnitude it concerns you. You just don't replace those people. You never have too much pitching.''

Most folks, even some within their own organization, thought they had too little pitching once Lee left and they also failed to land Zack Greinke or Matt Garza. But with the free-agent starting pitching market poor past Lee, they quickly zeroed in on Beltre, their second choice. Losing Lee enhanced their resolve and increased their chances at Beltre. Daniels traveled with Ron Washington and trusted veteran scout Don Welke to Los Angeles to meet with Beltre, agent Scott Boras and Boras' assistant Mike Fiore early in the winter.

Welke was sold on Beltre from his days together with him in the Dodgers organization. He knew firsthand that Beltre is one of the best people in the game. At the meeting Beltre impressed Daniels by answering the one difficult question hanging over him: Why did his best years seem to come in his walk years? Beltre responded that he thinks he's better playing on a contending team with a lot of buzz about it (his last year in L.A. and his year in Boston fit that description). "I don't really know for sure why that is, but when you play for something, you want to rise to the occasion,'' said Beltre, after he hit three solo home runs in the Rangers' ALDS-clinching 4-3 victory over the Rays on Tuesday.

The Angels were interested in Beltre but their position was weakened when owner Arte Moreno and then-GM Tony Reagins declined to meet with him even though he lives barely 45 minutes away in Los Angeles county. The Angels bumped their original $52 million, four-year offer to $64 million for five, and at the last minute, tried $75 million for five. "It wasn't that,'' Beltre insisted. "They made a good offer. I just thought this team (the Rangers) was built to win. I wanted to be back in the playoffs, and one thing I don't have is a ring on my finger.''

Beltre ultimately signed for $96 million over six years (with a voidable last year, meaning it could be reduced to $80 million), and he was nothing short of superb. He batted .296 with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs and would be an MVP candidate if not for the six weeks he missed with hamstring trouble. "He's done what we'd hoped he do,'' Ryan said.

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Some, including confidant John Hart, a valuable Rangers consultant and Daniels' predecessor, preferred Lee last offseason for some very good reasons. First off, their bigger concern was pitching. But he also worried about the feelings of team leader Michael Young, the incumbent third baseman and longtime face of the franchise. Young endured a rocky winter that at one point included a trade request, which was what Hart feared might happen. "It's safe to say it was a delicate situation that we didn't handle as well as we should have ... that's probably an understatement,'' Daniels conceded.

Young stayed and will get plenty of MVP votes himself after his wonderful season that included a .338 average, third-best in the AL, and a career-high 106 RBIs while playing 159 games.

In fact, though they reluctantly tried to trade Young, keeping him may have been the best move of all. The Rangers had a tentative deal in place with the Rockies where they would have paid a bit more than half of Young's $16-million salary and received Eric Young and one other young player, but after Texas went back to Michael Young and assured him he'd still have an everyday spot somewhere if he stayed, he told them that's what he preferred. So the Rangers, never enthusiastic about the deal in the first place, went back to the Rockies to ask out of the deal, which Colorado agreed to, provided they'd have a chance to get that deal back if Young had a change of heart.

Beltre's call to come to the Rangers over the Angels was actually just one of two monster pickups that burned Texas' chief rival in the AL West, the other being the acquisition of catcher Mike Napoli, who looked like a bit player in the three-team arrangement that sent Vernon Wells to Anaheim. (With the Angels spending an additional $76 million -- the Wells commitment was $81 million compared to about $5 million for Napoli --, it is easy to see why Reagins lost his job.) Napoli turned into a star with 30 home runs, a .320 batting average and a 1.046 OPS, which was second best in the American League to Jose Bautista's 1.056 among players with 300 at-bats,. Meanwhile, his replacement in Anaheim, Jeff Mathis, remained a defensive specialist and offensive liability.

"Our scouts thought Napoli was a better defender than he was given credit for,'' Daniels recalled. "We were a club always playing against them, and we hated it every time he came up. He's an intense guy between the lines. Besides all that, we'd struggled against lefthanded pitchers.'' Napoli has a career .955 OPS vs lefthanded pitchers. Levine said the other key to Napoli is that he was a "hard-nosed, Ian Kinsler type.'' Napoli said the trade didn't give him any extra resolve to beat the Angels. But he also said, after batting .357 in the ALDS, "I am in a good place. It's awesome.''

Not everything the Rangers did this winter worked, as Daniels admitted. Brandon Webb didn't make it to the mound after receiving $3 million, and just-hired hitting coach Thad Bosley was replaced in June (the numbers are terrific since in-house replacement Scott Coolbaugh took over). But the concern among outsiders (and some insiders) about their pitching turned out to be unwarranted. The lefthander Harrison became the third piece from the Teixeira trade to become a huge factor. Alexi Ogando became the second Rangers pitcher in two years to make the successful conversion from reliever to starter, following C.J. Wilson last year (closer Feliz could make it three next year). And prospect Derek Holland took a giant step forward.

Daniels did not share the concern of others this spring about their arms. "We said we liked our pitching. We were not embarrassed. We were not ashamed,'' he said. "We're proud of what we've got. We've got more than five guys who can do the job.''

The guys in the front office are doing quite a job, too. It's going to be interesting to see how they can piece things together next year. One Rangers person (not Daniels) guessed it was only "40-60'' they are able to keep Wilson, the Southern California kid who'll be by far the best free agent pitcher available, assuming C.C. Sabathia goes back to the Yankees one way or another. Wilson's reps sought the John Lackey/A.J. Burnett deal ($82.5 million) last winter, before Lackey and Burnett went south this season but Wilson repeated his excellent first year as a starter, going 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA after a 15-8, 3.35 season in 2010. There's speculation the Rangers might take a peek at either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, but while they are a high-revenue team, an extra superstar might be tough to squeeze into a payroll expected to expand soon merely from increases for their current stars -- yes, all the guys Daniels already acquired via trade.

• The Cubs have asked permission to interview Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe reported. Baseball people are split over whether Epstein will leave. He does feel the Red Sox front office is in good hands with Ben Cherrington, Allard Baird and Craig Shipley in Boston's front office. But one reason some baseball people think it will be tough for the Cubs to get the person of their choice is because all of Jim Hendry's people remain with the Cubs.

• It's possible also that Epstein, if he turns the job down, he could put in a good word for Cherrington. Cherrington, the Rangers' Thad Levine, the White Sox' Rick Hahn and the Braves' John Coppolella seem to be the hottest names this winter.

• Red Sox people were talking yesterday about managerial candidates, but the Epstein situation needs to be settled first. According to those in the know, Epstein doesn't seem averse to hiring someone with no or very limited major league managing experience. Pete Mackanin has earned raves as the Phillies bench coach and did a nice job as the Reds' interim manager before owner Bob Castellini decided the Reds had hired enough no-names and went with Dusty Baker instead. One former player said Mackanin is "easily the best I ever played for ... knowledgeable, game management, tough love, witty, funny, respectful, consistent.'' Reds GM Wayne Krivsky said he thinks Mackanin is tremendous as well.

• Rays bench coach Dave Martinez is a hot managerial name, and could be a candidate with the Red Sox as well as the White Sox. His name is getting the most play with the White Sox so far. Sandy Alomar Jr., another with White Sox ties, could get an interview with them. Torey Lovullo was well-liked when he managed the Triple-A Pawtuckett Red Sox last year but was said by one person to probably not be a fit in Boston right now.

• Buck Showalter has flown back to Texas, where folks say they believe he is deciding whether he wants to be GM or manager of the Orioles. Gene Michael, his first GM with the Yankees, said he believes Showalter is a field man (though he has expressed some interest in the GM job in his Texas days). Someone with some ties to the Orioles said they believed Andy MacPhail wants to step away from the Orioles but he's heard owner Peter Angelos would prefer to see him stay in some capacity. The GM job carries an absurdly high degree of difficulty.