Sunday, August 28, 2022

Jon Daniels

Jon Daniels is looking for a new job. Should the Mets consider him for their PBO?

The Texas Rangers fired their president, Jon Daniels, last Wednesday. That ended Daniels' run of almost 17 years at the helm of that club. When he was first promoted to replace John Hart as GM in October 2005, the then 28-year-old Queens, NY native was a true baseball wunderkind. He was the youngest team GM in MLB history. Interestingly, one of Daniels' deals in his first winter as GM was to trade pitcher Chris Young to the Padres. 17 years later, Young is taking over the top role with the Rangers.

Of course, I didn't choose to write about Jon Daniels for that interesting bit of irony. For years, Daniels's name was linked to the Mets whenever they searched for a new GM. After Omar Minaya was fired in 2010, Daniels was a candidate for the job that ultimately went to Sandy Alderson. It's unclear if Daniels actually wanted the Mets' job back then. This was the post-Madoff Mets owned by the penurious Wilpons, and Texas was at the start of the golden era of the Rangers' franchise. Texas won division titles in 2010, 2011, 2015, and 2016. They also were a wildcard team in 2012. They made it to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, ultimately losing to the Giants and Cardinals.

Daniels was considered one of the top execs in MLB during those years, but the bloom has come off the rose over the last half-decade. The Rangers engaged in a teardown and rebuild that has born little fruit. They invested heavily in the free agent market this past offseason, only to find themselves 10 games under .500 and out of the playoff hunt in a season where an extra wild card team was added.

I don't know how seriously Daniels was considered for the job when the Mets were searching for a PBO these last couple of off-seasons. Jon Heyman mentioned Daniels in a tweet from last fall:

If the Mets were interested in Jon Daniels, it didn't translate into an interview. Perhaps the Mets were denied permission, as happened with so many candidates, or perhaps their interest was overstated. I don't know. It will be interesting to see whether the Mets elect to speak with Daniels after their season ends — hopefully in November. By all accounts, Billy Eppler was hired last winter with the knowledge that a PBO could be eventually hired and placed above him in the baseball operations hierarchy. Could that happen with Jon Daniels this off-season?

Billy Eppler has earned high marks in most quarters for his work in building a winning roster for the 2022 New York Mets. The job of running a baseball team has become more and more collaborative over the years, and Eppler has a reputation as a great boss who encourages collaboration. It's hard to make a case that Eppler has shown a need for a guiding hand above him. While Steve Cohen could undoubtedly afford to pay Jon Daniels to be the Mets' PBO, would he feel the need to do that? I guess we'll find out this off-season.

In the meantime, it seems to me that what happened with Jon Daniels in Texas is an interesting topic to explore for a club that hopes to build a long-term winner. For many years, the Rangers with Daniels at the helm seemed a great role model for that type of success. The Rangers did a terrific job with their farm system, particularly in signing talent from Latin America. Early in his tenure, Daniels won many trades because his front office was just plain smarter than the folks in other front offices with whom he was dealing.

However, the drawback of being an innovator in an arena like MLB is that sooner or later, other clubs will take note of your success and essentially copy what you are doing. More teams with modern, intelligent front offices competed for talent in Latin America and other places. Fewer GMs were willing to make trades that were clear winners for the Rangers.

Also, some of their prospects didn't pan out. I remember all of the hype surrounding Jurickson Profar when the shortstop from Curacao was styling at the top of everyone's prospect charts. But injuries took a toll, and Profar never lived up to all of that hype. He's carved out an MLB career as a utility guy with the Padres, but his lifetime OPS+ in 9 MLB seasons is an anemic 94.

Since the Blue Jays swept the Rangers out of the 2016 ALDS, they haven't come close to sniffing the playoffs. In the last 5 completed seasons, they've finished 3rd twice and 5th the other three times. As mentioned earlier, they are currently 10 games under .500 and the same 10 games out of an AL wild card slot. Daniels has been unable to recreate any of his early magic with the Rangers. His reputation has taken a huge hit, with the current perception being that the game has passed Jon Daniels by.

I don't pretend to have insight into the Texas Rangers over the last couple of decades. Following the Mets as closely as I have dominates my time. Still, I sincerely doubt that the 45-year-old Jon Daniels won't have a successful second act somewhere in Major League Baseball. I could see him benefitting from a more generous budget somewhere. As this Twitter user points out, last winter's spending spree didn't propel the Rangers into the upper echelon of spending (Ray Davis is the owner of the club):

So, it's quite conceivable that Jon Daniels could succeed in a place like New York with a top-tier payroll, recovering that tarnished reputation as a genius from a decade ago. But what exactly would Daniels bring to the Mets that would warrant the hire?

The Mets are already in the process of upgrading how they develop players. Owner Steve Cohen understands very well that the key to sustained winning is a system that churns out attractive prospects for both the club's needs and to use as trade chips. Early on in Texas, Daniels did a great job of ensuring that the Rangers had one of the best systems in all of MLB.

But that really hasn't been the case in the Rangers' protracted rebuild. In a piece on CBSSports.com, R.J. Anderson has an excellent summary of Texas' recent struggles in drafting and developing talent:

...the Rangers drafted Joey Gallo with the second of their three first-round picks in 2012. He would go on to have a good career in Texas before he was shipped to the New York Yankees at the 2021 trade deadline. The Rangers' 15 subsequent first-round picks have combined for negative Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference's calculations. What's more is that only one of the 15 has tallied so much as a single Win Above Replacement in the majors, and that individual (Dillon Tate) did all the producing with another organization.

The Rangers have picked in the top 10 in three of the last four drafts and thus far have nothing to show for it. Third baseman Josh Jung (No. 8, 2019) has spent the season recovering from shoulder surgery; right-hander Jack Leiter (No. 2, 2021) has walked more than five batters per nine in his first 18 professional starts; and fellow righty Kumar Rocker (No. 3, 2022) was considered a reach by scouts and analysts with other organizations who wondered how he improved his stock so much in a year he barely pitched.

Those three selections could end up paying major dividends in due time, but the Rangers' inability to get the most of their young talent dates back a decade.

An executive like Daniels doesn't play a large role in scouting and development. He hires folks for those positions. But those jobs are the lifeblood of a successful MLB club, as they were for the Rangers a decade ago when things were going very well. As Anderson points out later in that same piece, Daniels' front office was one of the most stable in the game, with little turnover in key positions. The perception from outside is that the Rangers' brain trust had become somewhat stagnant in recent years.

In an article on Forbes.com, Brian Goff also opines on what ultimately went wrong for Daniels in Texas. The piece was written last September, when it became evident that the Rangers' president was holding on by a thread. 

The problem faced by Daniels and, ultimately, by any long-tenured, successful GM is transitioning from one core of players to a different, younger core. Very few manage this well. The Rangers reached the World Series with acquisition or development of a core of powerful hitters like Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Mike Young, and Ian Kinsler along with a variety of good but good (but not great) pitchers. Daniels' problems began with the unwinding of that core.

Three pitfalls standout with Daniel's decisions: i) giving up too much in the short-term to chase a championship, ii) making poor decisions for the future anchor-players for the team, and iii) bad luck (which flows back in the previous item).

Goff cites several deals Daniels made mortgaging the future to bring home that elusive World Series championship to Texas. He also questioned Daniels' choices with his farm system in recent years:

To Daniels' credit, he had a good sense of when to let Josh Hamilton walk away, and he held on to Adrian Beltre. But, he hasn't drafted and developed any big difference-makers. Slugger Joey Gallo has shown flashes but has not yet shown consistency. Other than Gallo, there isn’t much to show from the last decade of drafts or trades for young players.

Whether in baseball, economics, epidemiology, meteorology, or many other pursuits, forecasting the future is error-prone. That's the nature of forecasts. However, that is the GM's job. It is another reason for holding on to a lot of young players, or, at least, trading for other solid, young prospects. What I mean is that because forecasting player development is error-prone, building a large base of solid players in development is more likely to turn out some big hits than placing all the chips on one or two numbers.

This development-by-masses has been the Dodgers approach in recent years. Not only does alleviate the need to be a forecasting savant, but as some of these players develop, it provides for a relatively inexpensive core of productive players. Then, the free agent signings can help plug in some gaps here and there. Its the recipe that the Yankees used to build their core in the 1990s.

That's something I've come to believe strongly, that a team with a robust and productive player development system succeeds by creating quantity rather than just depending on a limited number of so-called elite prospects. Some of these guys will fail, or at least, as was the case with Profar, significantly underperform compared to expectations.

Considering what went wrong for Jon Daniels in Texas is interesting beyond the simple question of whether Steve Cohen should consider the man as that elusive PBO he spent two fruitless winters pursuing. While the Mets try to use clubs like the Dodgers as a blueprint for success, it's helpful to study why the Texas Rangers went from a model baseball operation to the troubled one that just handed a pink slip to their long-tenured leader.

Some of those problems may be due to a failure to spend at a reasonable level. Some, as Goff and Anderson both noted, may be attributable to plain bad luck. But there are also undeniably lessons to be learned on what not to do as the Mets try to become long-term members of baseball's elite. There are important lessons here, whether or not Cohen ultimately considers Jon Daniels for the top spot.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!


Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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