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 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.
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 longtime 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."
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 awhile, 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.