Some good decisions just keep paying off.
The Rangers made one of the boldest moves in their history immediately after the 2005 season, making 28-year-old Jon Daniels their general manager. The Rays fired Chuck LaMar a month later to turn that dismal franchise over to Andrew Friedman, who is only about nine months older than Daniels.
It's fair to say those two executives, among the most under the gun this offseason, have done extraordinary work.
The Rays had been a horrific 317-491 in the last five years of the LaMar administration and have gone 404-406 since. They won an American League pennant in 2008 and the AL East last season.
The Rangers had gone 394-426 in the five years before Daniels and are 411-399 since. The Rangers improved their victory total in each of the last three seasons and went to the World Series in October.
Frugal Rays confident: The Rangers and Rays no longer are on parallel paths, however. The Rangers are increasing their payroll while Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has decided he must cut costs because of a lack of fan support (22nd in attendance in 2010).
But Rays manager Joe Maddon believes his team can compete with the improved Red Sox and diminished Yankees and Blue Jays despite losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Jason Bartlett and now Matt Garza. Prospects like right-hander Jeremy Hellickson and outfielder Desmond Jennings are seen as key 2011 contributors, and Friedman used surpluses in the infield and the rotation to trade Bartlett and Garza for needed parts.
Bartlett, an impact player in 2009 who had lost his shortstop job to Reid Brignac, went to the Padres for four minor-leaguers, including Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos and former White Sox right-hander Adam Russell who could help restock a depleted bullpen. The Garza trade gives the Rays an eye-popping arm in Chris Archer, who could be moved to the bullpen, and possibly immediate help at catcher (Robinson Chirinos) and the outfield (Brandon Guyer).
The Rays still have more than their share of starting pitching with David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Price, James Shields and Hellickson.
The expectation is Friedman will use the money saved on Garza to sign Brian Fuentes and maybe another free-agent reliever. Maddon has said he believes the bullpen will determine if the Rays can compete, and the resourceful Friedman just gained some flexibility.
Rangers primed for repeat: Daniels, who now works in the shadow of team president/legend Nolan Ryan, had some long days after losing Cliff Lee to the Phillies but rebounded nicely with the signing of third baseman Adrian Beltre.
Giving Beltre $80 million over five years is nowhere as risky as signing the 32-year-old Lee to a six- or seven-year deal and practically has ensured the pitching-deep Rangers will repeat as AL West champs.
Beltre is Evan Longoria light -- a top defensive third baseman who can hit in the middle of the order. He and shortstop Elvis Andrus will take away a ton of hits on the left side, making every pitcher on the Rangers' staff better, and Beltre at least should match the production the Rangers received from invaluable 2010 addition Vladimir Guerrero.
The question is whether manager Ron Washington moves Neftali Feliz into a rotation headed by C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis or if Daniels uses his large inventory of prospects to deal for another starter, perhaps Garza or one of the White Sox veterans. John Danks would yield a huge return but deals for Edwin Jackson or Gavin Floyd would open a permanent spot in the rotation for Chris Sale, allowing GM Ken Williams to entertain the signing of Soriano.
Collateral damage: As the Cubs' Midwest scouting supervisor, Gary Nickels spent a lot of time watching Rafael Palmeiro and his talented Mississippi State team play in 1985. He was thrilled when Palmeiro was still available when the Cubs picked 22nd overall in the draft, and in the room at the Starkville (Miss.) Holiday Inn when Palmeiro signed for a $100,000 bonus.
Like many others in Palmeiro's corner, Nickels has been saddened to see Palmeiro's legacy in tatters since his 2005 suspension for steroid use. (Palmeiro claims he accidentally injected a banned substance he thought was B-12.) It was stunning for Palmeiro's supporters to see him receive only 11 percent of the vote in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.
"Talk about a tragedy playing out right in front of us," Nickels said. "Here's a guy who if he would have retired (after 2004) would have been up there with Robby (Alomar)."
Nickels, a long-time Naperville resident now with the Dodgers, says Palmeiro combined great technique with a desire to distinguish himself that was partly fed by spending his college career in Will Clark's shadow.
"He had one of the best swings ever, of anybody," Nickels said of Palmeiro, a career .288 hitter who finished with more walks than strikeouts, not to mention 569 home runs and 3,020 hits. "He finished to the pitcher. The last five feet or so he got through the hitting zone about as good as anybody."
When the Cubs traded Palmeiro to the Rangers before 1989, then-GM Jim Frey said he lacked power. But Nickels remembers field coordinator Jim Snyder raving about Palmeiro's ability to lift balls in the Instructional League.
"I didn't know he'd hit (so many) homers but I thought he had good power," he said.
He will be missed: Consistently solid work and an ability to get along with people were the hallmarks of John Rice, a Chicagoan who passed away Jan. 1 at 92. He worked 19 seasons as an American League umpire and drew assignments in four World Series (including the White Sox-Dodgers in 1959) and three All-Star Games (including the Pete Rose-Ray Fosse collision game in 1970).
"He was always a fair and square umpire, a fine fellow," former White Sox ace Billy Pierce said. "Because he was from Chicago, we'd kid him that he should be on our side, but he'd never do anything except laugh."
Pierce remembers flying to the state capital in Springfield with Rice, Minnie Minoso and Moose Skowron one winter. Minoso, who doesn't like to fly, recoiled at the sight of the small plane they boarded at Meigs Field and grew more concerned when Rice's seat broke as he sat down.
"Minnie wasn't happy but flew with us," Pierce said. "It was a good time. I think all of us enjoyed being around John."
Everything's temporary: Players consider the Rangers' Michael Young one of the best teammates in baseball. He has demonstrated unusual loyalty with his flexibility to change positions, the latest switch being a move from third base to a combination designated hitter/super utility role after the signing of Beltre.
"It's clear that I want to play with the Rangers," Young told the Dallas Morning News. "That's the only part of how this is viewed that's important to me. I'm willing to make some pretty big sacrifices. This move is pretty significant in terms of my career path. How it's viewed is not going to be important to me in terms of my job. And now my focus is on how I can best do that job."
Young, originally a second baseman, moved to shortstop after the Rangers traded Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano, and more recently had shifted to third base to accommodate shortstop Elvis Andrus in 2009. It now appears he has entered the Paul Molitor stretch of his career, one in which his focus is almost entirely on producing runs, not preventing them. A trade is possible but unlikely given that he's signed for three more seasons at $16 million a year.
The last word: "I have a little chip on my shoulder, man. I have been hearing a lot of people saying I am old, declining, and so I want to prove that theory wrong. I've played a while, I am getting up there in age, but that doesn't mean I'm getting worse because of age. I had a bad year. That's behind me." -- former Cub Derrek Lee, who turned down the Nationals to sign a one-year, $7.25-million deal with the Orioles.
Adrian Beltre's signing with the Rangers was another major blow to the Angels, who haven't added anyone more significant than reliever Scott Downs this winter. They had seemed a perfect fit for Beltre, as third base is a glaring weakness, but owner Arte Moreno believes increased payroll would force him to raise ticket prices. He has kept the Angels' average ticket price at $19, lowest in the American League according to Team Marketing Report. The Angels drew 3.25 million fans a year ago, ranking fifth in the majors. The four teams that outdrew them (Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers and Cardinals) charged an average of $30 to $52 per ticket. ... Talks between the Cardinals and Albert Pujols have begun amid optimism about an extension. Could the Angels be keeping their options open to have flexibility to make a run for Pujols? The Yankees and Red Sox wouldn't seem to have a first base need and it's not clear whether teams like the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers would have the appetite for a $30-million-a-year player. ... With Michael Young moving to DH, the Rangers no longer are talking about re-signing Vladimir Guerrero. He joins Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome on the list of Hall of Fame-caliber hitters in search of teams. ... The Yankees simply aren't acting like the Yankees. After losing free-agent target Cliff Lee to the Phillies and haggling with Derek Jeter over a contract extension, they now say they're unwilling to lose their first-round pick to sign any other free agent, meaning they are out on Rafael Soriano. Should the White Sox sign Soriano, he would cost them a second-round pick as they lost their first-rounder when they added Adam Dunn. ... The Twins are encouraged about re-signing Carl Pavano, a development that could add to the White Sox's interest in Soriano. ... Edgar Renteria is a good signing for the Reds. The World Series hero replaces Orlando Cabrera, with Paul Janish remaining as a valuable reserve.