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February 23, 2005

Prospectus Q&A

Jon Daniels

by Jonah Keri

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In an age where more and more front offices are recruiting young talent from outside the baseball world, Jon Daniels has enjoyed a meteoric rise. After graduating with a degree in economics from Cornell University, Daniels spent two years doing business development work in Boston. Introduced to Josh Byrnes--then in the Colorado front office, later with the Red Sox under another fast riser, Theo Epstein--he would later land a job as an intern with the Rockies.

After gaining experience working on draft history, park effects and other studies, the Rangers hired him as Assistant Baseball Operations Director in 2002. Promoted to Director of Baseball Operations when Dan O'Brien left the Rangers to take the Reds' General Manager job, Daniels then ascended to the role of Assistant General Manager last summer, solidifying his status as right-hand man to Rangers GM John Hart. Now one of the youngest AGMs in the game, Daniels' duties include contract negotiations and an array of broader strategic decisions. Daniels recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about the new blood in major league front offices, the challenges of playing in a big hitter's park, and more.

Baseball Prospectus: When John Hart was the general manager with the Indians he had some success signing players to long-term contracts well before free agency. The Rangers have taken on this idea with some of the deals the club has made. What does the strategy do for the club?

Jon Daniels: The most important factor is the stability it lends to the organization. John has had a lot of success with it in the past, as have other organizations. It's stability both on and off the field. In the clubhouse there's an understanding of who got the deals--the players know it's not a coincidence who got them, that it comes down to both performance and makeup. The other big thing it does is that it gives us cost certainty by buying out arbitration years. It helps us forecast where we're going to be with payroll, with the roster, two, three, four years down the road.

BP: What went into the team giving contracts specifically to Young (four years, $10.5 million, plus an option) and Blalock (five years, $15.25 million, plus an option) and not other players?

Daniels: The negotiations with Mike started around the time he walked into (Rangers manager) Buck (Showalter)'s office and volunteered to move to short. That showed the kind of character he had. We don't really have the one big vocal leader necessarily, but he's viewed as one of the leaders of the team. He was 27 at the time, coming into the prime of career. John was happy to step up to the podium and announce that Mike was part of the base of the Rangers.

One big difference with Hank was that he had one year of service time--Mike had over two years. But (Blalock) was coming off a big season; he wasn't eligible for Rookie of the Year, but if he was he could have won it. He was an All-Star and got some recognition for the big home run he hit. In our evaluation of Hank we knew we could have waited it out. But we wanted Hank to be one of the first guys we'd make a commitment to. He was young, you could see he had the talent, and he was interested in making the mutual commitment.

BP: Are these deals, then, a mandate on John Hart's part to use the same blueprint that worked in Cleveland?

Daniels: There's no kind of mandate. But you're certainly going to try and emulate success. With John, he's still the same guy, with many of the same philosophies. But other organizations are also represented here. Buck built a winner in Arizona in a very different fashion--there are others too. One of John's biggest strengths is his ability to take in a lot of input, whether it's scouting reports, medical or statistical information. Then he'll make a call based on all the information. We're trying to do things the way we've seen them, first-hand, be successful.

BP: There was a lot of discussion at the time of the Alex Rodriguez trade on the notion that a team supposedly can't win if one player is making too big a chunk of the total payroll. Do you believe in this idea, or was this basically a case of the team just wanting to shed salary?

Daniels: I think that's what historically has proven successful. But I imagine at some point there will be a team that comes along that proves it wrong. When the trade happened, that was a factor that was considered, but it wasn't a driving force. I've read a lot about what's been written about this topic. When you add up the numbers, try to forecast the production in the lineup now vs. then--it's tough to just add it up on paper to justify spending or not spending. Everything is considered, whether it's the talent involved, debt service (on the contract), the fans' reaction to the team. Top to bottom, I don't think anybody in the organization looks back and regrets the deal now. It was about the sum of all those factors, plus the flexibility it gives us in the future.

BP: "Flexibility," or "payroll flexibility," has almost become a loaded term...

Daniels: Well that was a factor. It's not necessarily flexibility to be used for this payroll and that payroll. But it definitely changes the context of other decisions when you move that much money off the books.

BP: Something analysts often talk about is the Rangers' problem preventing runs in recent years. Some people see it as a problem with the Rangers' pitching and lack of success developing pitchers. Then you hear talk of the outfield defense, and of course there's the ballpark. What do you think has been the biggest reason behind this problem?

Daniels: The ballpark is a factor that I think--not only with us internally but also externally--we're all trying to get our arms around its true effect. When I was in Colorado, we looked at things like additional runs scored. We'd do regression analysis to see if the runs were coming from singles, or doubles, or foul balls not caught. For us, the ballpark factor affects hitters as much as anything else. We bring in hitters that have had success on the road in the past, and after a small period of time--whether it's a change in their approach, psychological or physical--something happens.

If you look at Alfonso Soriano last year, he didn't hit as well on the road as he did when he was with the Yankees. A lot of people went on the assumption that he'd do better at home (because of the better hitter's park), and hit the same on the road. If you look at Jeff Cirillo when he was with the Rockies, he was brought in to hit in front of Walker and Helton, to get on base and score runs. But a guy comes in, takes BP, lofts a few balls...ever so slightly, he may change his approach. Now he goes back out on the road, and you're changing locations all the time--it can't be easy to make the adjustment on the fly. So right now we're actually looking at whether the park is a bigger factor for pitchers or for our hitters.

BP: So when you're trying to figure this out, from a run-prevention standpoint, is outfield defense factored into the equation?

Daniels: Yes, we do focus on it. It's definitely a focus of Buck's. The ideal world be to have someone like Carlos Beltran, where you get great offense and great defense. Of course you also have to consider how much you're able to spend. Otherwise, you've got to give somewhere, and you'll have pluses and minuses. We could have just had a bunch of fly catchers out there. But we've chosen to go with a more offensive outfield.

BP: How do you evaluate defense? Do you take an analytical, statistical approach, or does the team tend to lean more toward scouting and more traditional methods?

Daniels: Like a lot of things here, it's a combination of philosophies. We do have a consultant who uses a proprietary metric to evaluate defense. I look at what you'd call over-the-counter metrics, through BP and other sites. Our staff looks at video and we chart games as well. We're most comfortable using all of the information in front of us. I've yet to be presented with one number or method used to evaluate defense that makes others obsolete, and I'm not convinced I'm going to see that. I don't know that we spend the time and resources that others do to try to come up with the perfect number to end the discussion.

BP: Last season the team improved a great deal in preventing runs (5th in the league with a 4.53 unadjusted ERA, vs. dead last, 5.67 ERA, in 2003). What in your mind was the biggest reason for the improvement?

Daniels: For us the biggest factor last year was our bullpen, and the improvement we made there. Brian Shouse last year had his second straight successful year. Ron Mahay the same--that's two years in a row that he's contributed. Carlos Almanzar was a case of good scouting. He was a six-year free agent who'd had a dominant year in Louisville, Mark Connor had him in Toronto, we liked him and brought him in. Frankie Francisco we got in a trade, we liked his ability. Francisco Cordero was the one guy who'd been in our organization for a few years who we might have considered a known quantity.

The coaching staff did a great job. They were the unsung heroes of the situation--we made a lot of roster moves last year, especially to protect the bullpen. If a starter had to exit early and we had to work a long guy really hard, we'd react. You could hold your breath in that situation and hope that the starter goes longer the next day, but we often opted to bring a fresh arm up, protect the winning, contributing parts of the bullpen by always having a fresh arm up there who could pitch longer innings if needed. We ended up getting key contributions that way too, like we did with Doug Brocail. Outside of Cordero, almost all of the guys we brought in were six-year free agents--Mahay and Shouse in 2003, Almanzar last year. You never want to assume you'll automatically do as well one year as you did the last. But we have faith in our scouting decisions.

BP: As you noted, a lot of the pitchers who had success last year didn't have a huge pedigree. How much of the credit should go to (pitching coach) Orel Hershiser and his work with the pitchers? What types of lessons has he been able to pass along to the staff?

Daniels: (Hershiser) likes to say that he was a suspect, not a prospect. He was given a chance because someone else got hurt. He went into the Dodger rotation and never gave up that spot. He wasn't a power pitcher, but he had a heavy sinker and hard slider and made them work. Then he had the shoulder injury, and he was really the first of his kind to come back from that kind of surgery and really reinvent himself. He won a lot of games for the Indians in the mid-90s, helped get them to the World Series.

Orel's a very analytical guy. He's very into the biomechanical side of the game, very well versed in the field, with scouting experience. All of these are experiences that allow him to get through to people. He can get through to someone like Ryan Drese; he remembers what it was like to change his approach to get over the hump. With someone like Brocail, a veteran guy, he can help him, too, because he can share his experience of getting over shoulder surgery, what he needed to do, and Doug can use those lessons to get over the hump himself. It's not just Orel, either. (Bullpen coach) Mark Connor has worked with so many Cy Young winners--Guidry, Halladay, Schilling. It's a group effort, all the people in the organization helping with the pitching--they call themselves the pitching department.

BP: The method that got a lot of attention was the idea of keeping the ball down. How much did the pitching staff emphasize this idea?

Daniels: Especially in our ballpark, that was definitely a focus. Drese comes to mind. Orel helped John Thomson immensely the year before. In the bullpen you had Brian Shouse throwing from the left side--his sinker let him have some staying power. It's helped some guys who maybe needed a different look.

BP: The team has had some success with drafting and player development when you talk about players like Blalock and Mark Teixeira. The Rangers' best prospect now might be Ian Kinsler, who doesn't have the same background. How has Kinsler developed, and does he have a shot to make the big club out of spring training?

Daniels: Kinsler's with us in big league camp right now. He's been impressive on and off the field. He worked in the instructional league at playing both second and short, and even played a little third--he's athletic enough to play any of those spots. The interesting part of his history is that he was at Arizona State, lost the (shortstop) competition to Dustin Pedroia, and transferred to Missouri before he really got a chance to play. If we knew what he'd do professionally, we wouldn't have waited until the 17th round to draft him. We liked the player, liked what he brought, but he has to get the credit for what he did last year. Grady Fuson and Mike Grouse also deserve credit for drafting him. It was a great pick by Grady and great scouting by Mike, despite the fact we didn't necessarily project him to do what he's done so quickly.

He's competing for a job right now--if he doesn't win a spot on the big league club he'll most likely go to Triple-A. There's a development factor here too: even if he is clearly the best guy for the job, do you want him getting 200 at-bats in the big leagues or 500 in the minors?

BP: And there are service time considerations too, of course. What's the Rangers' approach when it comes to decisions on when to bring up players to the majors?

Daniels: Two or three times in the last few years we've brought up a player maybe before the textbook would have said we should. We did it with the anticipation they'd be able to contribute immediately. A recent example where it worked is Teixeira. We started his clock early, not just for the arbitration process but also for when he'll be eligible to become a free agent. That's a big consideration. But we also look at it as "is this a good way to develop the guy?" If you look at the role of Brian Roberts with the Orioles before he took on a more prominent role, or the way the Astros brought along Roy Oswalt--is there a development advantage to using a player part-time or in a bullpen role to start? To me it's not a hard-cut rule. It depends on the guy. You have to ask if he's going to be major contributor, or are you better off getting similar production from someone else? Then he can develop in the minors, and you don't have to start the clock until you need to.

BP: You mentioned this worked out well with Teixeira. Who's an example of a player where it didn't work out as well bringing him up early?

Daniels: With Hank (Blalock), in 2001 he had a tremendous year across three levels. In 2002 he had a monster spring training, beat out Mike Lamb for the third base job at the time, and then he struggled. He went to Oklahoma City and made some adjustments, but he just never got it going that year in the big leagues. In 2003 he laid claim to the job, and he was rewarded with a contract. Some people may say we started his clock too early since it didn't work out. Others might say he learned as much from his failure at the big league level. He might not have made adjustments as proficiently without having gone through that failure.

BP: With Theo Epstein winning a World Series as GM of the Red Sox at age 30, you at 27, you mentioned Josh Byrnes, David Forst, all the young front office talent in the game--do you see an effort being made by teams to seek out new sources of front-office talent? Is there more of a premium being placed now on finding people who may have more of a business background, who might be viewed more as baseball outsiders?

Daniels: Well, it's hard to step back and take perspective when you're in it. I do think you've got new ownership coming into the game, some from a more corporate background, less of the family-owned business. So they may be looking at perhaps running teams more like a business than a traditional major league organization. They may have a little more of a liberal mentality as far as opening up positions to a larger talent pool, looking at different skill sets. But I think calling it a "changing of the guard" is pretty short-sighted. I have a world of respect for the John Harts and John Schuerholzes and Brian Sabeans of the world--they've probably forgotten more about the game than I'll ever know. It's not necessarily a new breed now. John and other guys have thought about statistical analysis long before it became really popular. Maybe they used different metrics, but by no means were they caught behind the eight-ball not knowing how to look at it from that point of view. There are more acceptable ways to skin the cat these days. It's not necessarily a new way to be successful, more like other ways to be successful.

BP: Every team, whether it's the Rangers or the Devil Rays or even the Yankees, is limited by its financial resources. Since you're not going to get a superstar at every position, why aren't more teams using low-cost solutions like platooning to get the most out of what they've got?

Daniels: The number of pitchers teams carry now is definitely a factor--you can't platoon every spot. We have done some of this, though. Buck used David Dellucci primarily last year against right-handed pitchers. We looked for a big bat to be the prototypical DH for this season. We didn't find a solution that worked for us, so we may platoon Dellucci and Greg Colbrunn, a guy who's had a history of hitting lefties well. In center field, we'd love to see Laynce Nix take the step to hit lefties, but we also have Gary Matthews Jr. Is it a true platoon, where every at-bat vs. lefties goes to one, and all the ones against righties to the other? No. But in a practical sense in terms of how a manager will use it, yes, it's important.

Buck looks at it a lot, where he might try to set up the lineup righty-lefty-righty-lefty, setting up for the best match-ups in the late innings. We were surprised by teams that carried one lefty or none in the bullpen last year. We felt that gave them less of a threat to match up against some of our guys late in games. (With young players), I would expect that when Buck wants to give (Blalock) a day off, it'll be against lefties, but he'll play most of the time and not platoon. The other thing Buck needs to do is manage the whole team. It's easy to say this guy shouldn't play unless the match-up is right, but the manager is responsible for having guys ready to play in any scenario, including the guys on the bench.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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