Santiago Calatrava’s Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River in Dallas may endure for years to come as a stalwart achievement in local architecture, but Jon Daniels’ blueprint of the Texas Rangers could be remembered just as fondly and for just as long. The fact that Daniels has been the Rangers general manager for seven years already may not seem that incredible to most, but the fact that he’s still only 35 years old certainly does. Daniels was just six years removed from Cornell University when he became the youngest GM in major league history on October 4, 2005. After joining the Rangers in 2002 as a baseball operations assistant, a mere three years later he was the main man.
Receiving an Ivy League degree in Applied Economics and Management hardly seems like the fast track to a major league front office job, and the fact that he was cut from the freshman baseball team at Hunter College High School in Manhattan proves he didn’t come from the “player” side of the business. Without question his meteoric rise can be attributed to talent, hard work and intelligence, but it was also aided by timing and Tom Hicks’ penchant for copying others who had achieved success.
In 2004 the Boston Red Sox won the World Series after an 86-year drought with then 30-year-old GM Theo Epstein at the reins—so if Hicks couldn’t win his own World Series, at least he could beat the GM age record.
Daniels may not have equaled Epstein’s two World Series rings yet (the Red Sox also won it all in 2007 under Epstein’s watch), but guiding the Rangers to the last two Fall Classics after almost four decades of “mediocre at best” results in Arlington has more than justified his quick promotion.
Some early deals by Daniels, however, didn’t exactly endear him to die-hard Rangers fans that were quick to criticize the twenty-something GM for being unprepared for the job and overmatched by the competition. In December of 2005, Daniels dealt Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for the trio of Brad Wilkerson, Armando Galarraga and Terrmel Sledge. Soriano moved from 2nd base to left field for Washington, then proceeded to hit 46 homers and steal 41 bases, becoming a member of the exclusive “40-40” club. Wilkerson, the key to the trade for the Rangers, hit a combined average of .228 in his two years as a Ranger, never coming close to being the player Daniels imagined he’d be.
Daniels then shipped Sledge along with starter Chris Young and slugging first base prospect Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and Billy Killian. By now Rangers’ fans and the DFW media were wondering if the “wunderkind” was trying too hard to dazzle. But there was a “big picture” aspect to Daniels’ vision that would take a few years to develop. In the summer of 2007, Daniels swung for the fence by trading all-star Mark Teixeira to the Braves for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and prospects Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus.
The Soriano trade had opened a spot at second for an upcoming Ian Kinsler, and the Teixeria trade added another starting infielder, a key starter and a closer. Then in 2008 Daniels added the legend of Josh Hamilton in a retrospectively one-sided deal with the Reds for Edison Volquez. With a slew of savvy draft picks and Latin American free-agent signings, Baseball America was soon to name the Rangers’ farm system the best in baseball. Add to all this his out-maneuvering of the Yankees to land Cliff Lee from the Mariners in July of 2010, and his reputation had been squarely cemented.
Last year team President Nolan Ryan made sure to keep one of his most valued assets in Arlington, signing Daniels to a 4-year extension. “I’ve kind of been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,” Daniels has modestly said. And when Daniels’ name has come up about various GM openings (such as his hometown Mets) he quickly points out that he, his wife Robyn and their three children are very happy in Southlake.
Daniels has never been afraid to take chances when dealing players and will readily accept the subsequent blame that comes along when they don’t pan out. But those criticisms are becoming few and far between. And his response to adding pitcher Roy Oswalt in late June is typical of his understated personality: “We just want him to be one of the guys,” Daniels said.
Daniels and the Rangers seem to be a perfect mix of “Moneyball” and traditional baseball thinking. Daniels relies on his analytical mind (and that of his top assistant Thad Levine and a top-notch scouting department) to uncover lesser-known key players, but with the new Rangers’ new ownership he can also go “deep pocket” to acquire well known talent like Yu Darvish. Appearing in back-to-back World Series is a rarity, but Daniels and the Rangers take little solace in that achievement. All the hard work, the scouting and the spreadsheets are only worth the effort if they lead to a World Series trophy.
Getting passed over as a high school freshman just might have been the best thing to happen to Daniels—and the Rangers. It took him off the field and into the front office.