Jon Daniels and Thad Levine had just completed their first season as Rangers GM and assistant GM. Big changes were already underway. Buck Showalter was dismissed in October, Ron Washington hired in November.
Between those two events, as Texas was interviewing managerial candidates, Type A free agents Carlos Lee and Gary Matthews Jr. declared free agency, as did Type B's Vicente Padilla, Mark DeRosa, and Rod Barajas. Knowing realistically that the first four would find multi-year deals on the open market, Texas was prepared to risk arbitration offers to each of them, setting itself up for a haul of compensatory picks. The organization knew it was poised for an impact draft in June 2007.
Meanwhile, that same October, as the Rangers were home for the playoffs for the seventh straight season, Levine spent a good amount of time studying every playoff team from the previous 20 years. Not because he had nothing better to do. The exercise had purpose.
It would be a relatively quiet winter in terms of free agent acquisitions. Frank Catalanotto, a fringy Type A himself, was added, costing Texas the 16th pick the following June (guess what: if Texas had managed to lose just one more game in 2006, or if Cincinnati would have won one extra game, Catalanotto would have cost the club the 80th pick rather than the 16th), but no other Type A was signed. It's not as if the Rangers chose to stay out of the market - they were competitive on Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and Daisuke Matsuzaka - but as it turned out, the only free agent deals of lasting note that Texas closed that off-season (other than the reupping with Padilla) went to Eric Gagné, Kenny Lofton, and Marlon Byrd, all that December. One-year deals in each case. By design.
Byrd was viewed as a low-risk bet to become what he has in fact become, a hitter with the chance to break out in new surroundings and with a different batting coach, that is, another Matthews, another DeRosa.
Gagné and Lofton filled holes on the roster but, as one-year players, were also considered candidates to give Texas what Ugueth Urbina had four years earlier: a flippable commodity if things worked out for the player but not for the team as the season passed the midway point.
Hopes were high as the 2007 season got underway, not an unnatural phenomenon when a new manager is in place (and in the Rangers' case, there was the added gimmick point that both the Yankees and Diamondbacks had each won the World Series in their first season without Showalter). The club went 16-11 in spring training under Washington, and the optimists had some company.
But Kevin Millwood, Padilla, and winter trade acquisition Brandon McCarthy each lost to the Angels in the season-opening series in Anaheim. Texas then won home series with Boston and Tampa Bay, momentarily reaching the .500 mark at 4-4 before the final Rays game, erasing the bad taste of the Angels set.
Until the club lost 14 of the next 20, and 31 of 46, putting them at a Major League-worst 19-35 at the end of May, 13.5 games behind the Angels in the West.
Sometime during that month, the research that Levine had done in October was dusted off, perhaps sooner than he and Daniels had planned. The question Levine had asked himself, when examining those 20 years' worth of playoff clubs - and particularly the 20 franchises that had reached the post-season in the seven years since the Rangers had last done so - was why Texas hadn't achieved the same success.
In May 2007, it was already apparent to Daniels and Levine that it was going to be eight straight seasons that would end with number 162.
The biggest gut-check conclusion that Levine had reached as a result of his study centered on the Rangers' best player.
Levine says that as he broke down what the two previous decades of playoff franchises had done to make themselves playoff franchises, he was able to identify 10 or 12 defined steps. From those he narrowed it down to five steps that showed up over and over and seemed to fit best with what Texas seemed capable of executing. Specifically, the five steps represented a relatively uniform rebuilding model espoused by Atlanta near the beginning of that 20-year period, Oakland midway through that span, and Arizona, Cleveland, Colorado, and Minnesota more recently.
So, just as the process of choosing Washington was in motion in October of 2006, the idea of the five-step plan was being formulated as well, and if it hadn't been for the team's poor start in 2007, things might have looked dramatically different, and not better, for this franchise today.
A notoriously slow starter annually, Mark Teixeira had gotten off to a miserable .231/.346/.341 start in the 2007 season's first month, but was among the league's best players in May, hitting .349/.438/.661 as the team limped to a 9-20 record for the month. He was off to an even stronger run in June, hitting .364/.481/.909 in seven games before injuring a quad muscle on June 8, a night on which, despite a 9-6 win over Milwaukee, Texas stood 16.5 games out of first in the West and continued to own baseball's worst record.
The Teixeira injury came one day after the Rangers brandished their heavy draft ammunition, taking Blake Beavan and Julio Borbon with picks they'd received for the loss of Lee to the Astros, Michael Main and Neil Ramirez as compensation for the loss of Matthews to the Angels, and Tommy Hunter with an extra pick awarded for the loss of DeRosa to the Cubs, all in the draft's first round. But it was well before the Teixeira injury, and the milestone draft, that Daniels and Levine and their crew of advisors had taken a close look at Step One of the five-step plan and determined, with management's green light, that Teixeira was going to be the subject of a difficult, unpopular decision.
A look at Step One, and the four that followed it:
STEP ONE: Divest at the top. The Braves blazed a trail 19 years ago when they made the hugely unpopular decision to trade Dale Murphy. It wasn't the sole reason that Atlanta went from reaching the playoffs once in Murphy's 15 seasons with the club to doing so every year but one in the following 15, but it got the ball rolling. Levine has referred to this phase of the plan as a "strategic teardown," a move to part with a very popular but overly expensive player - whether because he's past his prime (Murphy was 34) or overpaid based on his productivity - no matter what the P.R. implications might be. The result: a reduced and more balanced payroll (Levine did extensive data-crunching on what percentage of payroll the successful teams of the previous 20 years paid their top four players) and the paving of the way for Step Two.
Oakland followed the Atlanta blueprint with Mark McGwire. Minnesota: Chuck Knoblauch. Cleveland: Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon. Colorado: Mike Hampton and Larry Walker (flipping him for St. Louis's Chris Narveson, Luis Martinez, and Matt Burch days after Walker vetoed the deal that would have made Ian Kinsler and Erik Thompson Rockies). Arizona: Luis Gonzalez.
Atlanta later followed its own model by going forward without Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood, Rafael Furcal, Javy Lopez, and Ryan Klesko.
Kansas City didn't move Mike Sweeney and probably should have. The later Colorado edition didn't move Todd Helton but overcame it with one of the greatest Septembers in baseball history. A number of teams (e.g., Pittsburgh moving Brian Giles) bit the bullet and made the difficult move but didn't execute Step Two properly.
STEP TWO: Reinvest at the foundation. Reducing spending at the big league level isn't enough, as plenty of franchises have proven. Reallocating resources toward scouting (draft and international and minor league coverage) and player development is what the model dictates. It's not just throwing more cash at amateur players to sign them (whether that means exceeding slot in the draft or ponying up internationally), though that's part of it, and making poor decisions in those areas can set a franchise back as surely as hitting on players consistently can accelerate the process. It's also expanding the scouting staff where appropriate, hiring the right people to man the scouting and development posts (to increase the odds that the acquisition decisions are good ones, and to maximize the odds of converting potential into results once the players are in the system), and establishing an aggressiveness and excellence that creates a reputation in the various talent markets.
STEP THREE: Accelerate, challenge. This is one stage that occasionally gets overlooked by some in the media, or misinterpreted. The five clubs that successfully implemented the Atlanta model each committed to challenging their young players at the big league level.
Among the trends that Levine discovered, by looking at all players to accumulate 2,500 plate appearances or 800 innings pitched (or 250 games pitched) since 1950, were the following:
• Major league ballplayers tend to peak between age 26 and age 31
• 90 percent of hitters reach their career norms after amassing 750 at-bats in the big leagues
• 82 percent of pitchers reach their career norms after logging 100 innings in the big leagues
The idea, then, is not simply stripping payroll to put an inexpensive team on the field. It's pushing young players in the developmental process, in part, so that the acclimation period gets underway, and out of the way. Feed those 750 at-bats and 100 innings to key young players, and reap the benefits sooner.
STEP FOUR: Lock in the core. While the six teams in the study each went down this path to an extent, it's a maneuver that John Hart often gets credited for pioneering during his Indians days. The organization's job is to properly identify a core of players (usually homegrown) that it believes will be integral parts of a winning ballclub, and attempt to sign those players to long-term contracts, often well before the player has the right to explore free agency but spanning into that period of the player's career.
The benefits to the team: Getting a core player under control for a long term, ideally covering his expected prime seasons. Cost certainty that enhances the club's ability to effectively plan over multiple years. Potential savings over the life of the contract. Marketing and community opportunities that grow out of the long-term commitment between team and player.
The benefit to the player: Financial security, guarding against the risk of injury or ineffectiveness. In exchange for the potential discount the player gives the team by locking up through the arbitration years and into free agency by a year or two, the player and his family are set for life - and he'll typically still be in his prime when the lock-up deal expires, in a position to land a much bigger contract after that (if not already extended by the club before expiration).
A favorite Levine quote that I like a lot: "Muscle is easier to buy than heart and soul." It's the heart and soul types that you want to lock up as you move into Step Four of the five-part plan. There's a reason that George Brett and Robin Yount and Derek Jeter and Kirby Puckett and Chipper Jones were never allowed to leave, and that Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia won't be, either. Same can be said for Michael Young.
STEP FIVE: Bang. When the time is right - and this calls for a different kind of patience from the scouting and development brand, but just as much of it - go to ownership and recommend a significant spike in payroll, whether to retain the core players identified in Step Four, add impact players through trades or free agency, or both. Think you still need some muscle in a spot or two to put you over the top? Go out and buy it.
A good recent example of a club, though not among the six that followed the full Atlanta rebuilding blueprint, that targeted one final piece as it made what it believed was a legitimate push for a championship run, was Philadelphia and Brad Lidge in 2008. In 1991-93, helping build its two World Series winners, Toronto went out and acquired veterans David Cone, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, and Rickey Henderson.
When is the time right? The answer: When the time is right. It's an inexact matter of timing (at least as far as the acquisition of players from the outside is concerned), a determination that the club is a key piece or two short of joining Atlanta, Oakland, Arizona, Cleveland, Colorado, and Minnesota on that list.
So, having made the decision in 2006 to figure out what the common steps were that successful rebuilding clubs had taken, and the determination in the spring of 2007 that it was time, with the blessing of ownership, to launch the five-step plan, what did the Rangers do, and how have they fared?
STEP ONE: Divest at the top.
Ask yourself this: If Texas had gotten off to a good start in 2007 and was hanging around in contention into the summer, would the club have traded Teixeira that season? As difficult as the decision to trade Teixeira must have been, it's hard to imagine the club doing it during a season that still meant something. Easy enough in fantasy league baseball. Not so much when there's a clubhouse and a fan base that management has to consider when thinking about running up a white flag on a season. Not the message you want to send your players, or your fans.
And, under that scenario, if the Rangers had waited until the winter following the 2007 season to shop Teixeira, would they have been able to get Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Neftali Feliz, and Beau Jones from the Braves?
Although we as fans didn't know it at the time, Atlanta GM John Schuerholz - the pioneer of the model that Daniels and Levine were trying to emulate - was months away from resigning and moving into the club president position. Schuerholz was gunning in July 2007 for one last title, and overpaid in young players to get Teixeira (a Georgia Tech All-American) for the 2007 stretch run (and the 2008 season). He turned the reins over to Frank Wren in October 2007 (having not reached the playoffs with Teixeira), and Wren would have never loaded up that off-season with the same five-player package for just one season of Teixeira - especially since Wren would have been understandably concerned with a much bigger picture as the Braves' new GM than Schuerholz was in the second half of his swan song season.
The poor start in 2007, then, allowed Texas to begin the strategic teardown by moving Teixeira at the perfect time (Atlanta would flip him a year later, with Teixeira one season closer to free agency, for the underwhelming package of Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek), ignoring the message it might have sent at the time to the casual fan and general columnist in the market, if not the clubhouse itself.
Texas padded the haul it extracted for Teixeira by moving Gagné and Lofton the same week for David Murphy, Max Ramirez, Engel Beltre, and Kason Gabbard.
STEP TWO: Reinvest at the foundation.
Texas has paid above slot in recent years to sign players drafted by Ron Hopkins and his crew of scouts, such as Teixeira, Derek Holland, Justin Smoak, Taylor Teagarden, Borbon, Jake Brigham, Neil Ramirez, Marcus Lemon, Robbie Ross, Clark Murphy, Johnny Whittleman, Kyle Ocampo, and Matt Thompson, and others. The club is surely prepared to do so for Tuesday's top two picks, lefthander Matt Purke and righthander Tanner Scheppers, if not others in this year's draft crop. And even when targeting slot players, the club has done well. The last few Rangers drafts have been solid.
Under the leadership of A.J. Preller, Don Welke, Manny Batista, and Jim Colborn, the club has stepped up internationally as well, signing players like Martin Perez, Fabio Castillo, Cristian Santana, Richard Alvarez, and the 2006 crop that featured Wilmer Font, Wilfredo Boscan, Kennil Gomez, Carlos Pimentel, Geuris Grullon, and Leonel De Los Santos, not to mention Yoon-Hee Nam, a lefthander out of South Korea who has exploded this season. Texas is also mentioned in connection with any number of the top prospects in this year's July 2 Latin America class.
In 2006, the organization opened a new state-of-the-art baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
The organization's player development operation, headed by Scott Servais, is as full of "prospects" as the system's minor league rosters are.
The Rangers are a top-tier franchise right now in the areas that make up Step Two, without which it's probably fair to say they might not be judged as having the consensus number one farm system in the game.
STEP THREE: Accelerate, challenge.
Levine told reporters just before the 2008 season that the Rangers were "about at Step Three." Since then, first base and catcher and shortstop and most of the outfield have been turned over to players with fewer than those 750 at-bats, and a significant number of rookie pitchers have been brought to the big leagues and placed in meaningful roles. There's no question that the organization is challenging its young players.
STEP FOUR: Lock in the core.
First it was Hank Blalock and Young, both of whom were locked up while Hart was still running the club. Daniels extended Kinsler, and the club had talks this spring with Josh Hamilton. It wouldn't be out of the question for the club to sit down with Frankie Francisco and Nelson Cruz this winter to talk about long-term possibilities.
STEP FIVE: Bang.
We're not at Step Five yet. But how close are we?
Although nobody internally was selling this 2009 club short, it's fair to say that the organization, and certainly fans and media, expected the concept of Step Five to be one that wouldn't come into play until 2010. That still might be the case, particularly in view of the ownership situation (though you'd expect that Texas would have gone with "safer" picks than Purke and Scheppers on Tuesday if ability to pay were an issue).
But if the state of ownership isn't a factor, considering the depth of the farm system, which allowed the club to take high-reward risks this week in the draft, would it be unwise to roll the dice on an impact bat or starter this summer, knowing you'd recoup two premium picks in the next draft for every acquired "rental" that leaves in free agency this winter - and recognizing that there are a number of potential trade targets who wouldn't be rentals at all?
What if there's an acquirable bat or arm or both that could ultimately be the difference between the playoffs and finishing two games out? Given where this thing stands into mid-June, do you not take the chance on that post-season possibility?
Getting Hamilton back will help. Jason Grilli might help. Maybe Orlando Hernandez will, too, or even Feliz (but not Scheppers). I'm thinking bigger.
Is it time, given the wealth of prospects the team has acquired and developed, to explore a Teixeira-type trade or a Gagné-esque trade - from the other side?
The bullpen is the first order of business, and that was the case even before Francisco's shoulder issue. How much better would things line up if the club didn't have to regularly count on Jason Jennings and Eddie Guardado to protect leads in the back third of the game, if Darren O'Day settled in as the seventh-inning man, if C.J. Wilson was available for a pivotal seventh- or eighth-inning spot, and a lockdown righthander was around to own the eighth? Adding an impact arm in the bullpen would help Texas avoid overexposing (or overworking) its key relievers, and help protect against the possibility that Francisco's health will be an issue all summer.
Huston Street? Bobby Jenks? Kerry Wood? Danys Baez? Octavio Dotel? Rafael Betancourt? Chad Qualls? LaTroy Hawkins? My man Kiko Calero? The struggling Russ Springer (who would probably push Jennings down but not O'Day)? Boston has Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito, Justin Masterson, and Daniel Bard from the right side. Would they dare move one?
What about a starting pitcher like Cliff Lee or Josh Johnson or Matt Cain or Roy Oswalt, or even Roy Halladay? Not one of them would be a rental, each controllable at least through 2010.
What if Brandon Webb comes back soon and shows his shoulder is sound again?
Maybe it's just an epidemic slump, but this lineup has become too easy to pitch to lately. I think back to the pair of trades Tom Grieve made for Julio Franco and Rafael Palmeiro in December 1998, trying to make the lineup less reliant on power, less prone to the strikeout, and more of a unit that pressured the opponent by reaching base. More modern example: Milton Bradley in 2008. Given how the Texas lineup shapes up, we'd probably be talking about a DH.
What about Brad Hawpe, who is reaching base 41 percent of the time? He earns about $3 million the rest of the way this year and $7.5 million in 2010 (his $10 million club option for 2011 voids if Colorado trades him). (Incidentally, two years and four days ago, the day after the Beavan/Main/Borbon/Ramirez/Hunter draft, I wrote: "And who knows, maybe three years from now, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels [yes, that's right] trades Main and third baseman Emmanuel Solis, both of whom are starring in Frisco, and big league left fielder Chad Tracy to Colorado for free-agent-to-be outfielder Brad Hawpe, who helps Texas separate itself from the Angels on the way to a playoff berth.")
Forget Todd Helton, who is owed about $50 million between now and the time he can be dismissed after the 2011 season.
Would Cleveland consider moving Victor Martinez and the $10 million he's due over the next season and a half? Significant contract, but a huge bargain.
Adam Dunn? Jeremy Hermida?
Notably, other than some of the relief pitchers (who are generally less expensive in prospects than starters or hitters), every one of the players listed above would be under control beyond 2009.
Nick Johnson and Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa and Russell Branyan would be rentals. Interested?
It's still primarily about adding an eighth-inning arm for me.
Depending on who you can get, pitcher or hitter or both, who do you refuse to part with?
With a shot at October, do you count on the latest influx of talent (this week's draft and the international class three weeks from now) into what's already the deepest system in the game and, in the case of rental pickups, the potential draft pick compensation to help make up for the price in players it would take to add the arm or the bat?
What would it take to get those players?
Actually, those aren't the threshold questions.
It's not as simple as lining the names up on the whiteboard and deciding where the line between "untouchable" and "available in this deal or that one" goes. That's secondary.
The threshold question is this:
Is it time for Step Five?
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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