MESA, Ariz. – Near the end of a decade in which they offered up some of the least productive starting rotations in the game, the Texas Rangers hired Nolan Ryan to be their team president, a personnel decision that held broad consequences in the club's front office.
"Heretofore," assistant general manager Thad Levine recently observed, "Jon Daniels' 58-mile-per-hour knuckleball, which he calls 'The Bedazzler,' was the best pitch in the front office."
A day later, Daniels tilted his head to one side, and muttered, "He said that?", maybe a little hurt.
Then he sort of laughed, lending the impression The Bedazzler should have been left to the shadows, next to The Gyroball, and Sidd Finch, and where all the Boston Red Sox coaches' Japan trip money went.
Yeah, Levine slayed 'em at the Cactus League breakfast, where every year club representatives stand stiffly before local community leaders, review the previous season and reveal their hopes and dreams for the next one. You know, anymore, all observations beginning with the term "heretofore" have a pretty good chance of being funny.
Levine actually began his presentation by revealing he'd spent time this winter meeting with a men's group, during which he'd discussed in detail the past Rangers' season, which concluded again with the Rangers last in the American League West. He'd been advised to combat his feelings of depression, he said, "by going to my happy place."
"So," he announced to a group that included a couple mayors and other serious types, "bear with me a little bit as I go through this."
Presumably, when Levine – or any of Rangers' management – closes his eyes and goes away, it's to a place where starting pitchers throw strikes and pitch past the fifth inning. Like, Boston. Or Anaheim. Cleveland, even.
Pitching is where any trip to Rangers camp begins and ends, at least as it comes to discerning if the Rangers have any hope of contending again. The early view is probably not, not with nearly every starter on the depth chart returning from some malady or another, including, but not limited to, swollen ERAs and battered reputations and plain old inexperience.
The good news for the Rangers recently, Kevin Millwood seems healthy and pitched well Wednesday, Vicente Padilla hasn't yet allowed a run, and Jason Jennings is beginning to get his pre-elbow surgery velocity back. Also, right-hander Luis Mendoza has pitched well enough to allow Ron Washington to believe he's got someone to cover for Brandon McCarthy for the next month or two, or for as long as McCarthy takes to heal from forearm inflammation.
The bad news, Kason Gabbard, who came to the Rangers in last summer's Eric Gagne deal, has been knocked around some, and Sidney Ponson is still in camp. They ought to at least take a look at John Patterson, because no spring could go well enough for the Rangers to turn down starting pitching, even if it is a reach, which is what Patterson has become.
So, while Josh Hamilton thrills them with his supreme athletic ability, and Hank Blalock attempts to restart his career, and Milton Bradley inches his knee toward Opening Day, and Michael Young readies for another 200-hit season, nothing gets done here until the organization – and that falls on Daniels – rectifies a pitching dilemma that borders on neglect.
Daniels nods in agreement. Since 2000, the season after they last played a postseason game, the Rangers have finished in the league's bottom three in starters' ERA seven times. That's 12th, 13th or 14th. The other season, they finished 11th. In the past six seasons, the starters were last or second-to-last in innings pitched. And in four of the past seven seasons, the starters led the league or were second in walks issued.
Somehow, while pitching the fewest innings in the league, they walked the most – or close to the most – batters. Throwing all those pitches explains why Rangers starters don't generally last very long. On the other hand, you wouldn't think they'd be in the game long enough to walk so many hitters.
Those are the rotations of Kenny Rogers and Chan Ho Park, of Darren Oliver and Chris Young, of Millwood and Padilla, of Dave Burba and Rick Helling. And, ultimately, of general managers Doug Melvin and John Hart and Daniels.
Daniels, Cornell educated, possessor of an earnest baseball mind, and the youngest man ever to become general manager of a major league team, well, you don't have to review the numbers with him.
"Our down cycle has probably extended longer than some other clubs," he says. "Other clubs have probably pulled out of it sooner than we have."
To that end, Daniels has redirected the Rangers toward pitching and starting pitching in particular (the bullpen was actually pretty good last season). In his first 10 picks of the 2007 draft, seven were pitchers, and six of them were 6-foot-1 or taller, suggesting power arms. He got young pitchers in return for both Mark Teixeira and Eric Gagne in trading-deadline deals in July. One of them – Gabbard – should start the season in the rotation. Another – McCarthy – came in a trade with the Chicago White Sox the winter before. Daniels also signed well-regarded prospect Warner Madrigal this winter after the Los Angeles Angels lost him through a procedural error. And, as many as two-thirds of the players selected in the first round of the coming draft are expected to be pitchers, so the Rangers could go there again.
So, he's trying.
"In very simple terms, the approach we've taken lately is quantity of quality," Daniels said. "You just have to be consistent in acquiring pitching talent wherever you can and then be patient in developing them."
He's heard the carping about the heat in Texas. He's also aware right-handers generally don't like to pitch at the ballpark in Arlington, which actually grades out neutral but plays to left-handed hitters.
But, as Daniels pointed out, only 2½ years ago the White Sox turned a hitters' park into a championship, and just last season the four National League playoff teams – the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies – hailed from hitters' parks. And look what the Red Sox have done at Fenway Park.
"Which of those," Daniels said, "is a pitchers' park?"
Meantime, Daniels needs only to return to 2006, when Millwood, Padilla and Jennings all pitched at least 200 innings. Conceivably, it could happen again. And, if it does, they'd all be in a much, much happier place.
- Jon Daniels