THE NEWBERG REPORT — MAY 25, 2007: A Mid-Season Manifesto

On January 15, 1995, the Cowboys traveled to San Francisco to meet the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, a week after Dallas had pasted Green Bay, 35-9. With their sights set on an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl win, the Cowboys fell apart the minute they came out of the tunnel. Troy Aikman was intercepted on Dallas’ third play from scrimmage, and Eric Davis returned it 44 yards for a Niners touchdown.

Three plays later, Davis stripped the ball from Michael Irvin’s hands and San Francisco recovered the fumble, moments after which Steve Young threw a touchdown pass to Ricky Watters. Cowboys kick returner Kevin Williams fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and seven plays later the 49ers punched another one in. It was 21-0. And it wasn’t even midway through the first quarter.

But the Cowboys got up off the mat and battled. Dallas ended up losing, 38-28, but had it not been for a brutal non-call on Niners corner Deion Sanders, who clearly held Irvin’s arm on a deep ball as Dallas was driving to cut the lead to three with seven minutes left, the Cowboys may very well have reached that third straight Super Bowl. And probably won it.

Brad Sham, in his book “Stadium Stories,” calls that game “The Best Loss,” reflecting the sentiments of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston, and others that it was among the defining moments for the team’s dominant run.

The first third of the Rangers season has gone about like the first seven minutes of that Cowboys-Niners matchup. But the key players from that football team count the way they fought back, even though the comeback fell short, as one of the greatest memories of their careers, even though the end result – a missed opportunity to return to the Super Bowl – had to be considered a failure from any other standpoint.

So if the Rangers somehow play .550 ball from this point forward and end up with a break-even 81 wins, the failure to play past 162 would undoubtedly be considered a letdown, but maybe it would serve a purpose beyond just playing improving baseball in the context of one season.

But that’s the players. It’s their job to win tonight, tomorrow, and every time there’s a game on the schedule. To fight back like the Cowboys did in San Francisco, no matter how bleak the situation. The job is different for the front office, and it’s a job that, unlike that of the players, changes from month to month and can certainly change from year to year. And this year is unique. Because in the next two months, Texas has an opportunity – a responsibility in a sense – to remake the future of this franchise in a way that many teams aren’t ever in a position to do.

Billy Beane likes to say that you spend the first third of the season figuring out what you have, the middle third addressing gaps on your roster, and the final third getting into the fast lane and flooring it.

This middle third for Texas in 2007 is slightly different from what Beane was talking about, because his statement was made in the context of a contending season. In the Rangers’ position, the middle third is all about two playing fields, outside the lines in both cases.

It’s about two sets of five:

(A) Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagné, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton, and, if healthy, Ron Mahay

(B) 17, 24, 35, 44, and 54

What Jon Daniels does in the next two months on the trade front, and what Ron Hopkins engineers two weeks from now in the draft, will factor in heavily to the direction things take here. The Rangers need to capitalize in June and July.

Here’s my armchair manifesto for the next two months:

SELF-SCOUTING

It’s something that every organization does at all times. Going into this critical two-month stretch, the hope is that the longer this leadership group has been in place, game plans have gotten more and more refined, divergent philosophies have given way to organizational continuity, and everyone is pulling his oar in the same direction.

The self-scouting takes place in every facet. College and high school scouting. Pro scouting. Conditioning. Is there the necessary consistency in each department, from top to bottom? Is everyone on the same page? There are plenty of different ways to go about building a winning baseball franchise in each of these areas. It’s key of course to have good people in charge, but it’s also important to have uniformity in whatever belief sets are in place. Do we have all of that?

Why have the good trades worked and the bad ones not? Same question with regard to the first hour or two of the draft. It’s not as simple as evaluating Daniels and Hopkins and their ability and effectiveness. If you play fantasy league baseball, the accountability is squarely, 100 percent on you. But if you think Daniels or Hopkins or any other general manager or scouting director around baseball makes his decisions based on box scores and sabermetric formulas and what he sees when he watches games, you’re wrong. Both have a cabinet of advisors, each of whom brings a unique set of skills and insights and experience and preferences.

How is the advice that Daniels and Hopkins are getting, and relying on? Why was John Mayberry Jr. the choice over Jacoby Ellsbury and Travis Buck? Why Thomas Diamond over Scott Elbert, whom the Rangers liked enough to fly in for a pre-draft workout? Even if those two decisions end up working out – and they still can – why were they made? Self-evaluate.

Evaluate player development and instruction, too – though that’s been pretty good. There have been more longshots who have arrived (Ian Kinsler, Kameron Loe, Scott Feldman, Jason Botts, Kevin Mahar, even fifth-rounder C.J. Wilson, whose track record in college certainly didn’t suggest this) than “sure things” who haven’t (Drew Meyer), and every organization has examples of the latter. Johnny Whittleman looks like an outstanding pick. There’s Travis Hafner, Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez, and John Danks, who are looking pretty good for other clubs after finishing school with Texas. Young and Frankie Francisco – and even Gonzalez – are examples of players who weren’t blue-chip prospects until the Rangers got their hands on them and got more out of them. When the various iterations of the post-Melvin regime have stepped significantly out of slot in the draft, they have done very well (Taylor Teagarden), done somewhat well (Vincent Sinisi), and done not so well (Kiki Bengochea). Marcus Lemon could fall into any of those categories. Time will tell. The level of success in locating, acquiring, and developing Latin American talent is undeniably on an uptrend.

After the 2004 season, in which Gonzalez hit .304 in AAA but with only 12 home runs (plus .238 with one bomb in his big league debut, spanning 42 at-bats), special assignments scout Mel Didier said this about the first baseman: “For a 22-year-old, [he’s] head and shoulders above everybody else. He’s got a chance to be something really special. I think he’s going to hit for power. I don’t think he’s going to be big-time power, but he’s going to hit 15 to 25 home runs, hit .300 and play first base as good as anybody.”

Were there others with stronger voices in the front office who were less optimistic about Gonzalez? Or was the trade market for him not as strong as the Rangers’ own internal evaluation of his potential? And if that’s the case, should he have been traded when he was?

As for the draft, all organizations make mistakes. That understanding should be built into the process of assessing draft success. Look at draft success like net income (busts = tax). But it’s surely possible to minimize the mistakes and the costs (tax-planning, if you will), whether it’s assessing the people making the recommendations on players, or evaluating the blueprint for measuring draft talent. Self-evaluate the philosophy, and those responsible for executing it.

Yes, there are problems with the level of talent in the Rangers farm system, without question, but that can be misleading. Considering how many minor leaguers have been graduated to the big leagues from the last few Rangers drafts – both in Arlington and with other clubs – it’s probably unfair to suggest the talent acquisition has been subpar. There’s no question that the Rangers system is thinner right now, especially at the upper levels, than that of most organizations, but part of the reason for that is so many prospects have departed the system the last few years, and Texas has generally been on the buyer end of most significant trades in that time, trading prospects rather than acquiring them. By definition that’s going to negatively affect the fertility of a farm system, and it’s been years since the Rangers system has been judged to be this low in rank.

But that’s about to change. The Rangers aren’t going to be buyers this summer.

Time for specifics.

DRAFT

Best available, five times. Don’t let agent issues or perceived depth issues factor in. If the top available player on our board when each of our first-round picks comes up on June 7 is a catcher, then take five catchers.

Well, maybe that’s overstating it a bit.

But the point is that if the two available players we like most at a given slot are a high school lefthander and a college first baseman, don’t make the call based on the impact of the loss of Danks from the system, or on what might happen with Mark Teixeira. Base it on which player we like more than the other, as if this were an expansion club with fewer players in the organization than executives in the draft war room.

Will high school righties Matt Harvey or Blake Beaven slide to the number 17 pick? Will Texas overlook the flaws in Tennessee center fielder Julio Borbon’s game and take the potential leadoff hitter? Is Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta the kind of guy about whom Sandy Johnson might have commented, as he did regarding Frank Thomas: “He can’t do anything but hit”?

With two weeks to go before the draft, the Rangers’ board is probably fairly well set. I don’t pretend to know enough about the first-round candidates that I’m going to sit here and tell you who I think Texas will draft, or ought to (but getting Harvey or Beaven sure would be buzzworthy). All that matters to me is that when the 17th selection comes up, and the 24th, and the 35th and 44th and 54th, the Rangers are prepared to take the best player on their board, regardless of some sense of “need,” and that the board reflects as close to a scouting consensus as can be expected from an organization.

Drafting for need simply makes no sense in baseball, because drafted players rarely impact the big club for a couple years, when needs will be unforeseeably different from what they are today. If we were talking about the NFL or NBA, then drafting for need makes a little more sense (even though it’s usually not the wisest way to go in those sports, either) because first-year players are often plugged into key roles right away. On top of that, because of the nature of a farm system, you can load up on catchers or left-handed starters, develop them into prospects, and put yourself in a position to trade your excess inventory for things you do need.

Trust the scouts who have earned that trust, and stick to the draft board.

TRADES

The Teixeira issue gains steam. As I spelled out on May 16, I think the odds are that Texas will trade him this summer or this winter, because he’s not going to extend here right now, and going into 2008 with him will mean, if the club is contending at mid-season, there’s no chance of trading him before he can be a free agent after that season ends. And that would leave you with two compensatory draft picks, no higher than the back half of the first round, which is a lot less palatable than the package of players you can get for Teixeira by way of trade – and that’s not even taking into account that $2-3 million it would cost to sign the two draft picks.

Here’s why the summer makes more sense: (1) Contending teams will theoretically offer more now than they will in December because they’d have Teixeira under control for two pennant races rather than one; (2) teams that have reached the two-thirds point of the schedule in a position to win are hungrier, and maybe more willing to ante up, than they would be in the winter; and (3) Texas has more leverage since they won’t be in a position where other clubs will believe they need to make a deal (unlike in the winter).

Here’s one reason the winter might be worth waiting for: Maybe there’s a team interested in Teixeira but can’t afford to include a particular major leaguer in the deal because it’s relying on that player for the stretch run. In the winter that attachment should be less of a factor.

But for the reasons stated above, the chances are that several teams could step up with formidable offers in July, and it would be pretty risky for the Rangers to reject all of them and count on a better offer turning up in the winter.

Plus, don’t discount the negative impact that a Teixeira trade will probably have on season ticket renewals. Theoretically that would be easier to overcome if the trade happens in July, and the players Texas gets in return are given a two-month chance to become part of the 2008 brand for the fan base.

As for what the trade could look like, you can expect these teams to have some level of interest: Boston, the Yankees, Detroit, the Angels, the Dodgers, and Atlanta, with Baltimore a potential player as well even though that club doesn’t stand to be in contention this summer. There’s a lot of baseball to be played between now and July, and so another team or two could figure in, and maybe one of the above drops out.

Can you get Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester (who would be a Ranger today if the A-Rod-to-the-Red-Sox trade was permitted to go through in 2004), and either Jacoby Ellsbury or Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden? Doubtful. Would Teixeira want to go to Boston, which treated him and his family badly after the 1998 draft, according to some reports? Questionable (though he can’t control where he’s traded). And let’s be honest: Do the Red Sox really need Teixeira? Doesn’t matter: Count on Boston being in the thick of this.

Does New York pony up (maybe Melky Cabrera, Kevin Whelan, and either Dellin Betances or a player to be named later, identified in September as Joba Chamberlain?) or do they sit tight, use their July bullets to acquire pitching, and wait until Jason Giambi’s contract expires at the same time that Teixeira hits the open market in a year and a half? May depend on how serious they think the Red Sox are about Teixeira.

Detroit: Andrew Miller can’t be traded until early August, and so to acquire him by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline he’d have to be a player to be named later – and that’s only allowed if he remains in the minor leagues from the moment of the trade until he’s actually conveyed. Would the Tigers be willing to keep the young lefthander on the farm for that stretch? Sure, if there’s only a couple weeks between the trade and its completion. Reports suggest Detroit won’t trade center fielder Cameron Maybin. Those are easily the top two prospects the Tigers have. But there are others, including Virgil Vasquez, who was drafted by Texas in 2000 but went to UCSB instead.

The Angels: They’re loaded with valuable trade chips, and intent on adding a power bat. Would Texas dare put Teixeira in Anaheim for not only the 2007 stretch run but the 2008 season as well? Would Casey Kotchman be relegated to DH? Would he instead come back in the deal? Or would the more frequently named possibilities – some combination of Joe Saunders, Nick Adenhart, Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales, and Reggie Willits – be enough to entice the Rangers to move Teixeira to the team they’re chasing in the AL West?

The Dodgers: It seems like such a perfect fit. Los Angeles desperately needs a run producer, and first base is an ideal place to stick him. They’re loaded with terrific prospects. Let Texas choose three players from a list including Chad Billingsley, Scott Elbert (currently sidelined), James Loney, Matt Kemp, Jonathan Meloan, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Tony Abreu, and this could end up being the best match.

Atlanta: Matt Harrison, Joey Devine, and Brandon Jones?

Baltimore: Surely Erik Bedard is no longer available. Adam Loewen (hurt) and Nick Markakis? Maybe Markakis, Jim Hoey, and Bill Rowell, with an eye toward converting him to first base?

In case you haven’t read the reports I’ve written on the Teixeira issue this month, nothing would make me happier than if he told Scott Boras to get a deal done to keep him in Texas for life. He’s a great baseball player. I’ve just resigned myself to the seeming inevitability that he’s going play somewhere else in the prime of his career. I hate that. But I can no longer rest in a comfortable state of denial and pretend that it’s just a matter of time before he negotiates a long-term extension in Texas.

I suggested a week ago that Gagné, if healthy, could bring a key prospect at trade deadline time, similar to how Ugueth Urbina was flipped for Adrian Gonzalez and two other minor leaguers in 2003. Is Cleveland’s Chuck Lofgren shooting too high? Probably. Trevor Crowe? Brian Barton? Scott Lewis? As long as there are two or three contenders who could stand to improve their ninth-inning situation – and there should be – the Rangers ought to be able to get something positive done by shopping Gagné.

Gagné, I believe, has a limited no-trade clause that permits him to designate something like 10 or 12 teams to which he’d accept a trade. But he’s pitching for a big contract, and so you’d expect him to allow a trade to a contender needing a closer to go through.

Interestingly, when Texas acquired Carlos Lee last July, he was on pace for a .286/.347/.549 season with 42 home runs and 121 RBI and was considered the prize player on the trade market. Right now, Sammy Sosa projects to a line of .266/.327/.526 with 34 homers and 124 RBI.

That’s not to say that Sosa has anywhere near the trade value that Lee had a year ago, or that he should. But consider that he’s a better defender than Lee, and that he’s going to make less than $1 million in August and September combined (even including plate appearance bonuses), while Lee was making about $4 million over the final two months last year.

And if you’re thinking that Lee was different simply because he was age 30 at the time of the trade last July while Sosa is 38, that’s sort of a distinction without a difference since Lee was just as much a one-year proposition giving his impending free agency as Sosa is right now. Yes, Lee carried the added benefit of draft pick compensation, and that can’t be discounted, but the point is that Sosa should have real trade value in July, assuming he keeps producing for the next two months.

Will Sosa bring a closer, two young big league outfielders, and a lefthander to groom? Of course not. But is it out of the question that he could bring one core piece to build with?

Lofton and Mahay will have to step things up to bring something useful back, but that’s not out of the question. Sure, Brian Shouse only brought Enrique Cruz, but at the same time, Texas turned Mike Nickeas into Victor Diaz.

None of the above players stand to be Type A free agents (with the possible exception of Gagné, I guess), so there should be no disincentive in terms of draft pick consequences to moving the players. Just have to move them correctly.

JON DANIELS

Extend him.

You heard me.

Nobody will argue that his trade ledger is above .500 right now, not even Daniels himself. But in the name of continuity, of remaining faithful to the blueprint, of resisting any temptation there might be to drastically change course just because this season has gotten off to an appalling start, Tom Hicks should fix things so that Daniels doesn’t go into 2008 with one year left on his contract.

Hicks reportedly met with Daniels a week ago, telling the press afterwards that the two talked about the importance of organizational stability. There’s a plan to stick to here, and extending Daniels will help ensure that there are no peripheral factors threatening to distract from it.

It will also serve as a demonstration of faith by ownership in the plan to move key veterans this summer or winter for younger players. I don’t think Daniels would succumb to a temptation to stick with (or add) more veterans than he would otherwise just because his own job is on the line, mainly because I think he believes in his plan and because he knows his job is on the line whether he has six weeks left on his contract or six years. But extending Daniels (which of course doesn’t mean he’s “tenured” for the life of the deal) would have the added benefit of securing his advisors in a way.

If the people responsible for advising Daniels on personnel decisions know that he’s not in an apparent position of having to make moves to save his job (i.e., not working under an edict to “win now”), then theoretically their evaluations and advice won’t be influenced (even subconsciously) by an urge to win today at the expense of a smarter plan to build a more stable contender over the long term.

CONCLUSION

This is a huge time, a crucial opportunity. Just like trading Travis Hafner and trading Adrian Gonzalez were, arguably, tolerable at the time (even if not in hindsight) – the question being whether they were traded well – there are players here who are in demand and will be over the next two months. It’s imperative that the Rangers capitalize the way they did when trading Carl Everett to Chicago, and Ugueth Urbina to Florida.

And that they capitalize with picks 17 and 24 and 35 and 44 and 54.

The front office is made up of executives that John Hart brought in, that Grady Fuson brought in, and that Jon Daniels has brought in. If they’re all on the same page, working in the same direction, trusting each other and taking advantage of each other’s strengths, lineage doesn’t matter.

All teams make trades and draft picks. But these are unusual circumstances of strength in those two areas for Texas. The next decade could be shaped heavily by what happens in June and July. Jon Daniels talks occasionally of the importance of maintaining (and staying faithful to) both a one-year and a five-year plan. The middle third of this season stands to impact a lot more than that.

How Daniels and his crew handle this opportunity to restock and revitalize the organization’s assets will probably define his legacy, and will almost certainly impact the ball club’s foreseeable future more than any two months in memory.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

2 Comments

I am an Eagles fan. Do you remember the second of our two regular season matchups in 95?’ Eagles won 20-17 and during the game they stopped the Cowboys on a 4th and one, but the Cowboys had called a timeout, so they replayed the down. Eagles stopped them again. That may be my favorite Eagles moment/game ever. I hated that Cowboys team.

http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

An ugly moment referred to in Dallas as “Load Left.”

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