A tale of two front office executions

Chris Young, Jon Daniels

Pitcher-turned-MLB executive-turned-Rangers executive Chris Young (left) now succeeds Jon Daniels (right) as the Rangers’ GM . . . but the move’s timing days after Daniels was made to fire manager Chris Woodward was strange to be most polite.

When the Rangers executed manager Chris Woodward and general manager Jon Daniels, it looked at first as though the organisation simply decided too much was too little and enough already. Likewise when the Tigers decided several days earlier that there was a guillotine with general manager Al Avila’s name on it.

Avila’s dispatch wasn’t exactly likely to generate much in the way of sympathy or empathy.   Tigers owner Chris Illitch probably starting drawing up the warrant after Avila made a pair of 2017 deals that sent away future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander and ace designated hitter J.D. Martinez and brought back what proved no major league help.

Both those players went from there to help make World Series wins possible with their new clubs, back-to-back even: Verlander helped pitch the Astros to the 2017 Series rings and Martinez helped swing the 2018 Red Sox to the rings a year later.

Never mind how tainted both Series triumphs are, though it’s possible to make the case that Verlander (and his fellow Astros pitchers) wasn’t exactly among the conspirators that birthed and bred Astrogate. And we don’t know for dead last certain whether or how often Martinez himself benefitted from the Rogue Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring.

From Avila’s first season on the job his Tigers, as Defector notes, were baseball’s second-worst hitters and second-worst pitchers on a team level, not to mention the second-worst in the Show for winning and losing—behind the Orioles, who’ve spent this year going remarkably and maybe inexplicably from the tanks to within a half game’s reach of the wild card picture.

“Then again,” observes Defector writer Ray Ratto (once a longtime San Francisco Bay Area sportswriter), “[Orioles GM] Mike Elias didn’t guarantee a quarter billion dollars in current and future salaries to players who have amassed a 43-68 record, worse than every team in baseball save Oakland and Washington, who have shed payroll to be bad. Spending more to be just as bad is, well, spectacularly contraindicated.”

That was the Avila legacy in an envelope. He gave them his son Alex as a catcher and in exchange steered the team into a ditch. His best year was his first, and that’s never a good way to keep the boss from snarking you up on your way out the door. The current team is on pace to have its second-lowest runs per game output in franchise history (and since we know you’re going to ask, 1904) and the fewest homers in a full season since 1954. We’d call them God-awful, but God has lawyers.

. . .The Tigers just . . .  faded away. Neither hated nor condemned, they just eased into the Phantom Zone and stayed there. They’re not even appreciated for playing the fastest games in the majors, which is the one blessing you can provide your fans when you stink on a daily basis.

Al Avila

Al Avila, watching the Tigers work out the day before Opening Day, seeded his demolition with two 2017 trades.

In other words, if Avila was actively and consciously tanking, he had a mad genius for doing it as far away from deep scrutiny as the current Cubs, Reds, Royals, Pirates, and Nationals have drawn. (“Even the Angels get more condemnation,” Ratto writes wryly, “but that’s because unlike the Tigers, they kept their best players and still failed.”)

So the rebuilding Tigers have to start their rebuild all over again. So, apparently, do the Rangers, whose owner Ray Davis announced Daniels’s firing by saying, “Bottom line is we’re not good, and we haven’t been good for six years. To be competitive going forward, I felt that we needed to make a change.”

It was the way Davis made the change that left more than a few eyes rolling and jaws falling. He made Daniels announce Woodward’s wiring into the electric chair just a couple of days before he threw the switch on Daniels himself, whose contract was due to expire at season’s end.

Saying the decisions were brewing for several months before last Monday’s Woodward execution leaves Daniels with what The Athletic‘s Rangers beat writer Levi Weaver calls “a bad look.” That’s like saying the deal with Adolf Hitler to swap Czech freedom for “peace in our time” left Neville Chamberlain with nothing more than the proverbial egg on his face.

Except that the Czechs knew exactly what was coming, even if portions enough of the world around them still couldn’t believe it. As Weaver writes, Daniels was sent to face the press explaining Woodward’s dispatch with no knowledge that his own hemlock cocktail was being mixed.

What troubles Weaver is that, for all that dispatching Daniels might have been necessary at last, it was done not only underhandedly but a couple of years too late:

After all, as Davis made sure to point out, the Rangers haven’t had a winning season since 2016. In retrospect, the rebuild that began in earnest in 2020 probably should have begun in 2017 — never mind that one source familiar with proceedings said that Daniels intended to do just that, but was pressured into putting a better product on the field for the first season of the new ballpark. Still, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Chi Chi Gonzalez and a passel of other home-grown talent didn’t turn out to be the next core of stars that fans hoped. Those decisions land at Daniels’ feet and maybe warranted a parting of ways.

But if that were the case, it should have been done back in 2020, when it was clear that plan hadn’t worked.

Those are purely baseball considerations. They fall under such headings as the Rangers’ farm yielding negligible crops; the front office’s unique stability in the Daniels era meaning a lack of fresh blood; and, a lot of circumstantial misfortune such as a pitching staff bedeviled with injuries over too long a period.

But Weaver isolates another problem with the manner in which Daniels was handled now. Reporters so often speak to a man’s peers in a business and Weaver learned things about Daniels from fellow GMs and their underlings that might make him an exception rather than a rule in a sport whose business is as cutthroat and duplicitous as its play is ennobling.

“Daniels cared about his people,” Weaver writes. “Sometimes, in the opinion of those around the league, he cared too much, seeing the best in his employees and keeping them around when others might have pulled the plug.”

Sure, he would make a hard decision when he had to — occasionally, the fit between employee and organization just wasn’t working and it was time to part ways. But the only times Daniels ever took me to task for my reporting was when I wrote those stories. Every time, the message was the same: if you need to blame someone, blame me. I don’t want this guy’s family to read him getting ripped in the press. I’m front-facing; I can handle it.

With [Daniels’ sudden firing] it’s clear that loyalty didn’t work its way up to the ownership level . . .

. . . Choosing one’s employees is an owner’s prerogative. But to fire Daniels publicly after such a long tenure showed a lack of common courtesy or decency. Even if Davis had decided not to renew Daniels’ contract at the end of the year, keeping him around to help with the transition would have accomplished two things. One, it would have given some well-deserved dignity to Daniels, allowing him to quietly step down at the end of the season. He has earned that, and to surprise him with a firing now — just two days after he was the face of a managerial firing — is disrespectful at best.

Secondly, allowing Daniels to finish the year could have potentially been beneficial to [pitcher turned MLB vice president in charge of discipline to Daniels understudy Chris] Young. In an advisory role, Daniels could have helped to prepare Young for the remainder of the responsibilities he was inheriting. We’ll never know now: Davis didn’t run the idea by Young before making the move, opting to act now and let Young deal with the fallout.

Respected for brains on the mound and as a baseball executive in the making, Young doesn’t exactly have people worrying about whether he’ll crack. But Daniels had almost two decades on the job and shepherded the last two (and back-to-back while they were at it) Rangers World Series entrants. (They lost decisively to the Giants in 2010; they were two outs from winning the 2011 Series when they ran into a Cardinals buzz saw named David Freese.)

Daniels and Young enjoyed a close relationship for a very long time, going back to Young’s initial major league seasons pitching for the Rangers. Surely Young knows that being a people person was one of Daniels’s above-average strengths. And the Rangers have had small improvements this year even if they weren’t obviously making more better promises for next year.

How Young balances himself between people personhood and making the hard assessents of the Rangers’ roster and front office should provide interesting observations. But if he assesses the depth of the handling and timing of his former boss’s sentence to the Phantom Zone and finds himself compelled to keep one eye over his shoulder, you can’t necessarily blame him.

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