Can Daniels really improve Rangers?

BY foxsports • July 26, 2012

In every baseball front office, the goal is to remain rational in an irrational sport. Everyone — the fans, the media, the players, the coaching staff — is clamoring for one move or another, leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

This year, the cacophony is loudest in Arlington, Texas.

The Texas Rangers should be able to say, dispassionately, that they have been the best team in baseball since the start of the 2010 season. They played in consecutive World Series. And they would be champions today, if Nelson Cruz had taken a better route on David Freese’s fly ball in the ninth inning of Game 6 last year.

But he didn’t, and we all know what that means: The plan seems less perfect. The manager seems less brilliant. The roster seems less talented. That is absurd, of course. That is also the reality of sports.

And that is why, over the next several days, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels will be more fascinating to watch than Mike Trout and Bryce Harper combined.

Daniels has built a model organization by making one good decision after another. Some were big. Some were small. A great many of them were right. Even those that seemed risky at the time — acquiring Josh Hamilton from Cincinnati, signing Adrian Beltre to replace Michael Young at third base — have proved prescient over time.

We would be wrong to call these the most trying days of Daniels’ seven seasons as the Texas GM. He dealt with Hamilton’s alcohol relapses, Ron Washington’s positive cocaine test and scores of sensitive issues we know nothing about. But as a baseball executive, this is his greatest challenge: He must tinker under the hood of a perfectly functional Ferrari and come away with a better sports car.

This might be Daniels’ last, best chance to win a World Series with the current core of players. This might be his last chance, period, to win a World Series with Hamilton — a free agent after this season. Fans have flocked to Rangers Ballpark this summer, giving the team a higher average attendance than the Yankees, Red Sox and everyone else in the American League. With every click of the turnstile, it is as if they are sending a message: GO FOR IT, J.D.!

But what does that mean, really? Should Daniels trade all of the organization’s best prospects — shortstop Jurickson Profar, third baseman Mike Olt, left-hander Martin Perez — in an all-out, third-down blitz to win the franchise’s first world title?

Not necessarily.

And yet he has to do something. In fact, I would argue that Daniels should do two somethings: Trade for an impact hitter and No. 1 starting pitcher.

The Rangers are in the odd position of being tied for the major-league lead in runs scored this season (488) while scoring the second-fewest runs this month (62). This strikes at the heart of Daniels’ dilemma: Does he point to the overall number as a reason to leave the lineup alone? Or does he allow the July statistics to scare him into action?

The Rangers scouted Arizona’s Justin Upton earlier this month; that established the Rangers’ interest in outfield power, even if Upton is likely to remain with the Diamondbacks. Further evidence of their intent came Thursday, when the Rangers had a scout in attendance as the Cleveland Indians defeated the Detroit Tigers. The scout traveled to Cleveland, presumably to watch Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo — who may become available in the coming days.

Choo, 30, is a superior defender to Cruz, 32, and is having the better offensive season. He also would give the Rangers a left-handed outfield bat for next season, when it’s possible Hamilton won’t be with the team any longer.

For that matter, Hamilton’s bat barely has been around this month. Hamilton is batting just .154 with three home runs in 65 at-bats. He recently told reporters that he feels “out of sorts mentally.”

Perhaps the pressure of a contract year is affecting him. Whatever the reason, it must be hard for Daniels to have complete trust that Hamilton’s performance will normalize. And so Daniels owes it to the fans and players to acquire more firepower while he still can.

The pitching staff has a similar dynamic: Sure, the Rangers could win the World Series with the current cast. But it would be difficult without a meaningful upgrade. Colby Lewis, the team’s most reliable starter in the last two Octobers, is out for the season. Neftali Feliz, currently on the disabled list, is unproven as a starter. Yu Darvish is 5-5 with a 4.92 ERA over his last 10 outings. Roy Oswalt has a 5.22 ERA and achy back. Derek Holland has been mediocre.

Matt Harrison is the lone Texas starter enjoying an exceptional season. That’s no way to win a championship.

So, the Rangers are looking at Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson and all the rest. There’s a pretty strong chance Daniels will make a move for one of them, because, really, what choice does he have? If the Rangers keep their prospects but lose in the ALCS or World Series, few Texas fans will want to hear about Olt’s prodigious power numbers for the Class AA Frisco RoughRiders.

I’m not being fair to Daniels when I suggest that he trade for Choo or Upton, along with Greinke or Johnson. But that is the price of near-complete success in 2010 and 2011 — emphasis on near. The Rangers, for this brief period in their evolution, have become the New England Patriots, Detroit Red Wings, Miami Heat, and, yes, the New York Yankees. The playoffs? Please. In Arlington now, as it has been in the Bronx for decades, throwing the season’s final pitch is the ultimate measure of success.

A lousy trade deadline wouldn’t be so dramatic if only Cruz had caught that ball at Busch Stadium last October. I know that sounds ridiculous. But it’s the truth. And Daniels knows it.

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