Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels (center) is flanked by then general… (Chris O'Meara / Associated…)
Reporting from Arlington, Texas -- When Jon Daniels took over as general manager of the Texas Rangers he was just a month past his 28th birthday, which made him younger than many of the players he inherited.
But he was wise enough to know those weren't the guys who were going to make the Rangers winners. So he looked around for a blueprint to steal — a road map that could take the franchise from the middle of the pack to the top of the heap.
"We kind of stepped back and said the Angels are very good, very well run. Have … good systems and good people in place," Daniels remembers. "You don't win for a decade on accident."
So fast-forward six years and say hello to the Texas Angels.
A season after dethroning Mike Scioscia's team atop the American League West and making the first World Series appearance in their history, the Rangers have a chance to repeat as division champions for the first time in more than a decade, entering Saturday with a three-game over the hard-charging Angels with a month to play.
And Texas got there by razing the franchise and starting over.
"We said, 'Let's focus on scouting and development. Let's hire the best people and expand our program to really focus internationally,'" says Daniels, who told ownership it had to be willing to step back to get the team where it needed to go.
What followed were a series of wise free-agent signings (Adrian Beltre, Colby Lewis, Darren Oliver) and deft trades that leveraged the depth of the Rangers' minor league system.
Mark Teixeira was sent to Atlanta for starting shortstop Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz and 10-game winner Matt Harrison. All-Star outfielder Nelson Cruz and 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton came over in separate deals with Milwaukee and Cincinnati. And Daniels got David Murphy from Boston and Mike Napoli from Toronto.
Of the nine everyday players Texas took into Daniels' first season in 2006, only two — second baseman Ian Kinsler and MVP candidate Michael Young — remain. C.J. Wilson is the only holdover on the pitching staff, but even he's not the same guy because he has moved from the bullpen to the top of the rotation.
"We were able to very slowly kind of turn the ship around," Daniels says. "If you believe in your people and you have a good philosophy in place, you've just got to give it time. We were fortunate enough that ownership bought in. Both [former owner] Tom Hicks' group as well as our current group."
And perhaps most important, that buy-in has allowed the Rangers to be active at the non-waiver trade deadline. Last season Daniels outbid most of baseball to get left-hander Cliff Lee in a six-player deal from Seattle. Then last month, with virtually every contender looking for bullpen help, the Rangers made separate moves to get Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, the two best relievers to change teams.
"There's a reason we're able to do that," Daniels says. "That goes back to our scouts. That goes back to our minor league coaches. When other teams want your players, you're able to make deals. And if they don't, it's a different situation."
The result is a team that, like the best Angels squads of the past decade, is evenly balanced. On offense, the Rangers are second in the majors in hitting, third in runs and homers, and fifth in stolen bases. On defense, they lead the AL with 15 shutouts and lead the majors with 141 double plays.
"We can win a 2-1 game," Daniels says. "We can play the small game and execute. We can run. We have some guys that can hit the ball out of the park. We play defense. Our bullpen has a chance to be a strength for us.
"That's what we want."
But now that the Rangers have made it to the top, the trick is to stay there.
"Obviously we're a different team. For one, we just have better players. We're a way more well-rounded team than we've been in the past," says Young, who played on losing teams in seven of his first eight big-league seasons. "The biggest thing right now is the expectation level in this organization has changed. Winning is the only thing that's expected.
"Having said that, we've been really good at focusing on the present. We know that last year's over. And we have to find ways to improve and accomplish our ultimate goal."