Jon Daniels became the Texas Rangers' general manager following the 2005 season. The Rangers weren't a complete mess at the time; they'd won 79 games in 2005 and the year before they'd won 89. But that '05 team really did only one thing well: It hit 260 home runs, with seven players hitting 20 or more. Kenny Rogers and Chris Young were the only two good starters and Rogers was about to depart as a free agent. The farm system wasn't barren, but wasn't in great shape. In Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects entering 2006, no Rangers were ranked in the top 50, although pitchers Edinson Volquez, John Danks and Thomas Diamond did crack the top 75. The team was still paying off part of Alex Rodriguez's contract even though he was playing for the Yankees and attendance had ranked sixth in the American League.
Complete disaster? No. World Series contenders? Definitely not.
So how did the Rangers turn into one of baseball's elite franchises? Unlike the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rangers never hit rock bottom and profited from early picks in the draft like Tampa did with David Price, Evan Longoria, Jeff Niemann, Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, all top-five picks.
To make matters worse, Daniels' first two major moves proved disasters: (1) He traded Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals for Brad Wilkerson and Armando Galarraga; (2) Later that offseason he traded Young and a disappointing prospect named Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka.
The Rangers haven't had too many misfires since then. Here are 10 key moves in chronological order that turned around the franchise.
1. Alexi Ogando: Selected from A's in 2005 Rule 5 draft.
Why it was smart: Ogando had been an outfielder in the Oakland system but Rangers scouts saw the arm strength and envisioned a pitcher. Thinking outside the box. Ogando had to remain in the Dominican for several years after being denied a visa. Allowed back in 2010, he quickly reached the majors. And then the Rangers showed more outside-the box thinking by moving him to the rotation in 2011.
2. Derek Holland: Selected in 25th round of 2006 draft.
Why it was smart: More kudos to the Rangers' scouting department. He was a draft-and-follow selection out of Wallace State CC in Alabama and signed the following spring for $200,000 after his fastball velocity increased to 91 mph. In the minors, it jumped even more to 94 and then 96. Suddenly he was one of the hottest prospects in the game. But credit the Rangers for showing patience after he disappointed with a 6.21 ERA as a rookie in 2009.
Why it was smart: The Rangers were just .500 at the time, but sat 1.5 games out of first place. Lee was the main guy they wanted but Daniels also got Cruz, a guy who had put up big power numbers in the minors. They lost Lee to free agency after the season but the pick acquired from the Astros was used on Blake Beaven, one of the players sent to Seattle in the Cliff Lee trade. (Granted, there was an additional stroke of luck here: The Rangers actually designated Cruz for assignment in 2008, but no other team picked him up.)
Why it was smart: Daniels was one of the first GMs to trade his star free agent a year before free agency. As a result, he was able to secure a premium package of prospects.
Why it was smart: Traded a fungible, mediocre middle reliever for a quality major league hitter. Murphy isn't a star but has been one of the best fourth outfielders in the majors the past few seasons.
5. Dec. 21 2007: Traded Edinson Volquez to Reds for Josh Hamilton.
Why it was smart: Traded an unknown quantity (a pitching prospect) for a proven major league center fielder. Yes, Hamilton carried risk considering his background, but as a pitching prospect -- especially one without refined control of his pitches -- Volquez was probably a bigger risk. After essentially being out of baseball for four seasons, Hamilton had hit .292/.368/.554 as a rookie with the Reds.
6. 2010: Signed Colby Lewis as a free agent out of Japan.
Why it was smart: A low-cast investment on a guy with a good arm who had put up excellent numbers in Japan. A one-time first-round pick by the Rangers, Lewis had never put it together in major league trials with Texas, Detroit and Oakland. After two years in Japan, the Rangers brought him back for three years and $8.25 million (including the team's 2012 option). Compare that deal to what some free agents got that winter: John Lackey for $82.5 million, Vicente Padilla for one year and $5 million, Ben Sheets for one year and $10 million, Jason Marquis for two years and $15 million.
7. 2010: Moved C.J. Wilson to the rotation.
Why it was smart: Starters are more valuable than relievers. Wilson always had a starter's repertoire of pitches, but most teams are unable to look past a pitcher's label once he acquires it. In the Rangers' case, Wilson had been labeled a middle reliever. Credit pitching coach Mike Maddux (and Wilson, of course), for believing the move could work.
Why it was smart: Fungible relief pitcher for that rarest of commodities, a catcher who can hit. Relief pitchers come and go and Francisco wasn't even a top-shelf closer.
9. 2011: Signed Adrian Beltre as a free agent.
Why it was smart: When the Rangers finally made a big investment on the free-agent market, they made a reasonable five-year, $80 million commitment with a good all-around player. The other key: They did this despite having an All-Star third baseman on the roster in Michael Young.
10. 2011: Didn't trade Michael Young after signing Beltre.
Why it was smart: Young still had a valuable role to serve with the team. Look, maybe the Rangers did try to trade Young, especially after he asked for a trade last spring. But give credit to the Daniels for not selling low on Young and accepting him as an overpaid DH/utility infielder. Young responded with one of the best years of his career.
What makes this list of moves so impressive is that any organization could have made these moves (with the possible exception of the Beltre signing). Smart scouting, smart trades, taking some risks ... the Rangers have shown that you don't necessarily have to rebuild by starting over or relying solely upon your farm system to produce a stream of Grade A prospects.
It can be done. In fact, it's this history of moves why I like the Darvish investment. The front office wasn't afraid of a pitcher from Japan; it had seen success happen right in front of it with Lewis. Yes, Darvish cost a lot more, but Lewis' raw stuff doesn't compare. The bigger point: Daniels doesn't operate from the view of worrying about making the wrong move; he's concerned with making the right move. You can trace that mindset back to keeping Ron Washington as manager after he admitted he used cocaine during the 2009 season. Washington made a wrong choice, but was he still the right manager for the club? Daniels believes he was. Two World Series trips later, that belief has been rewarded.
And a third straight World Series appearances could be on the horizon.