Every team needs a blueprint—some plan of action laid out by the front office. For example, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ blueprint has been to trade away young talent and stock up their farm system. And although the cycle of dumping young stars before they became too expensive to keep seemed endless, they are finally starting to reap the rewards.
Contrast that with the Yankees’ blueprint of routinely outbidding the rest of the league for free agent talent, and largely using their farm system to trade for the players they can’t buy.
Our own Jim Hendry’s blueprint for the Cubs looks like the maze from the back of a children’s restaurant menu, covered in crayon and ketchup stains.
But rather than further railing on Hendry’s failures and inadequacies this week, I want to look ahead to what the future of the Cubs could be by looking back at the past of one recent “worst-to-first” success story: the Texas Rangers.
In 2007 the Rangers finished dead last in the AL West, nineteen games out of first place. Just three years later, they represented the AL in the World Series. How did they make such a dramatic turnaround?
Any story you read about the Rangers’ success starts with Jon Daniels. Daniels was twenty-eight when he was named GM of the Rangers—the youngest GM in baseball history, and he was an unpopular choice with some Rangers fans before his team ever stepped onto the field. After taking over in the 2005-2006 offseason, he traded away Alfonso Soriano, who went on to have a 40-40 year for the Nationals*. He also traded away Texas native Chris Young and minor league prospect Adrian Gonzalez (yes, that one) to the Padres.
*Daniels made the controversial deal to open a spot for 2B prospect Ian Kinsler. Rangers fans would quickly get over it.
In 2006, Texas hovered in and out of contention. Daniels tried to put the team over the top at the trade deadline with a deal to bring Carlos Lee to the Rangers, but the team was never able to fight their way back into a playoff spot, finishing the season in third place, thirteen games out of first.
That following offseason, Daniels let Lee, Mark DeRosa, and MVP-candidate Gary Matthews Jr. go in free agency, and traded away John Danks. What was left of the team in 2007 team quickly took up residence in the AL West cellar. Spending almost $70M on a team entrenched in fourth place for most of the season, Daniels was faced with some hard choices and a seething fanbase.
That’s when the young GM laid out a five-year strategy that emphasized player development and long-term growth. Under Daniels, the Rangers would target and acquire young prospects in trades, put an increased emphasis on the draft and developing talent, and build a young, winning team from the ground up.
He kick-started “the plan” at the 2007 trade deadline, sending Mark Texeira and Ron Mahay to the Braves for young catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and minor league prospects Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones. He also traded veteran reliever Eric Gagne to Boston for Kason Gabbard, David Murphy, and Engel Beltre.
The Texeira trade in particular was a major risk. The power-hitting 1B had one more year of arbitration ahead of him, but when he rejected a long-term contract extension from the Rangers, Daniels seized on the opportunity to restock his farm system. And while Saltalamacchia was the only big leaguer at the time of the deal, Daniels and his staff were confident in the investment they had made.
At the same time, Daniels wasn’t tight-fisted with his prospects. After the 2007 season, he traded Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera to the Reds for OF slugger Josh Hamilton**. Hamilton’s past made him a questionable investment to many teams, but Texas gambled that his best baseball was still ahead of him. He rewarded their confidence by becoming a four-time All Star and the 2010 AL MVP.
**The Cubs briefly had possession of Hamilton, but sold him to the Reds as part of a pre-arranged deal. I’m not sure of the price tag, but I can’t imagine it was enough to stomach the season Hamilton had for the Reds, and the career he has had in Texas.
Daniels also took a risk on noted head-case Milton Bradley in 2007, signing him to a one-year deal***. Bradley thrived in the Texas clubhouse, posting one of the best statistical and most controversy-free seasons of his checkered career.
***Daniels had similar success in 2010 signing another slugger with something to prove—Vladimir Guerrero.
The results? The 2008 Rangers showed a slight improvement in the standings. They preached patience to the fans and fielded a team of veterans like Gerald Laird, Michael Young, and Bradley, while developing younger guys like Ian Kinsler and Chris Davis.
However, the 2009 Rangers were much more competitive. They posted the team’s first winning record in five seasons, and finished second in both he AL West and Wild Card races. More important, that young core of players began to take shape at the major-league level. Kinsler was already a fixture, but Andrus and Feliz were just making their debuts. And young OF Nelson Cruz (part of the Carlos Lee deal) reclaimed his starting spot in the lineup.
The rest you already know. The Rangers jettisoned older players like Vincente Padilla, Marlon Byrd, and Kevin Millwood before the 2010 season, and Daniels’ core of young stars carried them to the World Series. Kinsler, Andrus, Hamilton, and Feliz were All Stars, and Feliz set the save record for rookies (40). Maybe the best indicator of how far the team had progressed is that they were buyers at the 2010 trade deadline, not sellers, picking up Cliff Lee to bolster their pitching staff for the playoff run.
Daniels had built a winner—one that beat the Yankees’ collection of expensive talent. He had transformed his team from a perennial doormat to a legitimate contender—not just in 2010, but for the foreseeable future.
The question is, can Jim Hendry or his replacement do the same for the Cubs? The current roster has more overpriced veterans and no Texeira-esque trade bait—the closest we’ve got is Aramis Ramirez (who doesn’t want to be traded yet) or Sean Marshall (who, it seems, is too valuable to trade). So while one clutch trade probably won’t kick-start a team-wide transformation like it did for the Rangers, the Cubs could—and should—follow Daniels’ simple blueprint for success. We need to shed some wasted payroll, get younger, and build for the future.
What that looks like is up for discussion.