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Brady Aiken's adviser rips Astros as team can't reach deal with picks
July 18, 2014 8:17 pm ET
Deadline day did not work out for the Houston Astros, who failed to sign the No. 1 overall pick in the draft -- left-handed pitcher Brady Aiken -- who by all accounts is a fine young man as well as an extremely talented pitching prospect. They also failed to sign two more prized picks in right-hander Jacob Nix and left-hander Mac Marshall.
And it wasn't a good day for Aiken, either, who was said by all involved to be excited to begin his professional career upon originally agreeing to a $6.5-million deal. Now he will instead have to take the tougher road to riches through the college ranks, presuming the NCAA allows him to keep his UCLA scholarship even if he had a deal and was in Houston for a press conference that never came off.
Nor was it an especially good day for Nix, who thought he had a $1.5 million deal with the Astros, and passed his medical test with Astros doctors with flying colors only to have it pulled out from under him because someone else's physical (namely his friend Aiken) wasn't deemed to be perfect.
Not that the Astros didn't try to recover Friday, trying last-ditch efforts to save the day. While Aiken's adviser Casey Close had previously revealed that the team knocked its offer down to $3.1 million after finding an alleged flaw in the physical, the Astros made three separate offers Friday, with the second one coming with 30 minutes to go and the third one, said to be for $5 million, with five minutes left.
Aiken's side (with adviser Close also happening to be the adviser for Nix, which unavoidably adds some stickiness to the situation), is said to have responded with nothing beyond a “no” to all three offers Friday. There was not one counteroffer, according to people familiar with the talks. Not even for the original $6.5 million, they say.
Close just said nothing, at least as far as the negotiations were concerned. On other scores, however, he apparently had plenty to say, giving Astros GM Jeff Luhnow an earful over the phone about the unfortunate situation.
People who heard about Close's conversations with Luhnow said Close berated Luhnow for various perceived transgressions, accusing him of leaking the medical findings regarding Aiken that derailed the deal (he is said to have an issue with his left ulnar collateral ligament) and suggesting to him that players don't or won't want to deal with them because of the way they handle things.
Luhnow declined to confirm the content of their “conversations,” and Close didn't respond to texts.
Tonight, the players union left little doubt where it placed the blame. Union chief Tony Clark issued a statement saying, “Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options.”
Clark said at the All-Star gathering they believed the Astros “manipulated” the system, harsh words that may be the start of the new union's chief's first real fight. He wasn't in charge when these draft rules were installed, but he seems pretty sure this wasn't what the union had in mind. Clark, it seems, may be looking to fight here. Union people declined further comment, citing legal reasons. And that may be a sign they are aiming to press legal buttons. Perhaps they shoot for free agency for both players via grievance.
A case certainly could be made that the Aiken situation should have been handled more diplomatically, with the team coming with the $5 million offer (which is still more than the $4.8-million offer they made No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa two years ago) soon after the medical findings, rather that dropping his offer to $3.1 million, which is the bare minimum they could offer to prevent Aiken from becoming a free agent. But ultimately, it may be difficult to say one way or another whether Aiken's allegedly small ligament adversely affects his chances of becoming a star, or should cause his bonus to be lowered.
Player bonuses have been dropped before due to medical findings, such as R.A. Dickey, whose agreed-upon $810,000 Rangers bonus was cut to a mere $75K after a team exam revealed he had no ulnar collateral ligament whatsoever. (He took it.)
The most obvious victim here though would appear to be Nix, who is said to have had no medical issues and yet winds up unsigned over the difference of opinion the Astros and Aiken had over Aiken's medical exam (Aiken's side said he is fine, pointing out he threw 97 mph in his final high school game and saw three leading doctors after the Astros' who attest to that).
A reasonable case could be made that the Astros are obligated to sign Nix since the presumption when he came for his own physical was that if he passed it they had a deal. Houston has been accused by Clark of manipulation, but perhaps they simnply didn't maneuver properly. The under-slot signings should be done first, a rival GM pointed out. But this may also be up to their adviser to navigate; maybe Nix simply shouldn't have been advised to go for a physical before Aiken's deal was official.
Luhnow declined comment on the Nix situation. But other people familiar with the Astros' thinking on this suggest that Nix's side should have understood that he wasn't going to get $1.5 million, or $1.2 million above slot for a fifth-round pick, without the pool money that was to come from the consummation of an Aiken deal. Maybe so, but it's also hard to recall a player losing his deal because of another player's physical, which is what happened here. And Nix himself certainly wouldn't have any reason to think he'd become the first.
Close can berate Luhnow if he likes, but a case could be made that the adviser might have been better off getting their own doctor to examine Aiken first, or perhaps even getting the Astros to sign off on a doctor of their choosing. If Close finds the Astros so sketchy, as he seems to from his “conversation” with Luhnow, the question may be asked whether he should have trusted the exam to the team, where anything could happen to lower the pre-arranged $6.5 million deal. Close is an experienced and respected negotiator with several $100 million deals on his resume, but if he really doesn't trust the Astros, why did he trust them in this case?
The union seems to believe there is a case, and for Nix, a hard-throwing righty who like Aiken is from southern California, in particular there may be one. It's hard to see him as anything but an innocent bystander, and a fair recourse might be to make him a free agent. The promising lefty Marshall, too, became a victim of Houston's inability to sign Aiken, though there hasn't been public word that he had an agreement that was killed by the failure of the Aiken negotiations
Of course the union might have been better served in the first place not to accede to this draft playing field in the first place, where bonuses have severe limits and one player's status can be affected by another one's physical condition.
As things stand, they are pretty sticky. Nix still would have had his deal had Aiken taken the $5 million that was offered, meaning the decision of one of Close's clients affected another's. Perhaps Aiken was too annoyed with the Astros to accept any deal (after all, Close didn't even counter at all, even by repeating the $6.5 million original offer, sources say), but nonetheless, his decision inadvertently affected Nix.
Aiken and Nix presumably can commiserate at UCLA and reapply for the draft in three years (a club person said their eligibility shouldn't be affected since players are allowed 48-hour tryouts at team sites) or they can go the junior college route and try for next year. Either way, even if Aiken's arm is completely sound, there's no guarantee he'd still get the $5 million he was offered.
The Astros, who brilliantly maneuvered the new draft two years ago, are an obvious loser here. They effectively used the draft in the past, adding above-slot talents like Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz after saving a few bucks on Correa two years ago. But the plan blew up on them Friday.
"It's disappointing to the fans, and I get that," Luhnow said. "We went into the draft trying to extract as much talent as possible. ... We did what we thought was best for the Astros. This was not our goal. Our goal was to sign the player."
The Astros will at least receive a replacement pick, the No. 2 overall pick, next year, presumably giving them two very high picks. But Luhnow understands the "delay" is not a positive. It certainly isn't for a team that has had the worst record in baseball three years running, and whose fans deserve a medal for patience as they await the fruits of the grand plan.
As for their reputations, the Astros will likely remain a love-'em-or-hate-'em type organization, with the sabermetric set viewing them positively for calculating so precisely, with the old-school set deriding them for not taking the human element into account, beyond what's read on a stat sheet or an MRI. Texts were flying Friday about the "Last-ros" and the "Dis-Astros," feeding into Close's feelings. But Close's harsh words on the phone may just be the start of something much bigger planned.
What failing to sign top-pick Brady Aiken means for the Astros
The Astros failed to sign their first- and fifth-round draft picks by the 5 p.m. deadline Friday, triggering threats of legal involvement from the players union. Where do the team, players and union go from here?
It's been more than 30 years since the No. 1 overall pick failed to sign with the team that drafted him. In 1983, Tim Belcher couldn't agree to terms with the Minnesota Twins. Before that, it was Danny Goodwin, who was selected first overall by the Chicago White Sox and chose to attend Southern University instead.
Add Brady Aiken's name to that inauspicious list. On Friday, the Houston Astros failed to reach an agreement with Aiken, a high school left-hander from Cathedral Catholic high school in San Diego, after taking him first overall in the June draft.
What happened? What are the ramifications? How did things get so bad? What does it mean for both Aiken and the Astros moving forward? Let's take a crack at finding some answers in this sordid affair.
What happened Friday?
Five p.m. (ET), July 18, was the deadline for players chosen in this year's MLB First-Year Players Draft to sign with their respective teams. The Astros were still attempting to negotiate with three players from this year's class: first overall pick Aiken, fifth-round pick Jacob Nix and 21st-round pick Mac Marshall.
Nix, a right-handed pitcher from Los Alamitos High School in California, had reportedly agreed to a deal with the Astros on June 17 worth $1.5 million. His draft pool bonus slot was $370,500, meaning the Astros needed to save roughly $1.2 million elsewhere in the draft to afford him.
Marshall, a left-hander from Georgia, had a hard commitment to LSU, which caused him to slip in the draft. Signs pointed to him honoring that commitment, even after the Astros tabbed him in the 21st round.
A report broke just after the draft that the Astros and Aiken had agreed to terms on a deal worth $6.5 million. That would have been around $1.4 million under his draft slot amount of $7,922,100, giving the Astros more than enough wiggle room to sign both Nix and Aiken.
On Friday, the deadline came and went without the Astros signing any of the three.
Things started to unravel around June 23, when Aiken went to Houston to finalize his contract and take a pre-draft physical. After being sighted in Houston on Monday of that week, no deal had been announced by that Friday.
That's when news started to leak out that the deal was potentially held up thanks to a medical issue found in his physical. This week, we found out that it likely had to do with his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which is the elbow ligament which typically needs repair in Tommy John surgery.
Jeff Hoffman got signed after Tommy John. Why didn't the Astros just sign Aiken?
Unlike Hoffman, the ninth overall pick in this year's draft by the Blue Jays, Aiken is still healthy and throwing fine. He's had no elbow discomfort and is still throwing up to 97 mph.
The issue seems to be with the size of his UCL. It's reportedly smaller than average, which doesn't affect him now, but could lead to issues down the road. That's why the Astros reportedly lowered their offer to $5 million.
Technically, the team only had to offer Aiken 40 percent of his slot amount in the event of a failed physical. This would allow them to recoup a draft pick in next year's draft if the player was not signed. On Monday, Aiken's advisor, Casey Close, told Ken Rosenthal that the only offered Aiken had seen from the Astros was for $3.1 million, or 40 percent of his draft slot amount.
Aiken's camp did not take this well. As Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reported Friday, the Astros offered three different contracts to Aiken before Friday's deadline, but Close would not even take their calls.
Even if they missed on Aiken, the Astros still had a deal with Nix. Why didn't he sign?
Since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect before the 2012 draft, the rules have changed for draft picks. Before 2012, the commissioner's office sent out unofficial draft slots for players it expected teams to follow. But, some big-spending clubs ignored these and reaped the rewards.
So, in the new CBA, a harder slotting system was implemented. Teams are allotted money based on their picks and are penalized in more severe degrees for exceeding that draft bonus pool. If a player signs for more money, the team must make up for it by agreeing to a below-slot deal with another player.
The hangup with Nix happened when Aiken refused to sign. The Astros were counting on the bonus pool savings with Aiken to offer Nix that $1.5 million. But, the Astros aren't guaranteed all the money in their draft pool. If a player fails to sign, it loses the entire amount of the slot. For the Astros, that meant their bonus pool fell from $13 million to $5.4 million.
If they had followed through and signed Nix, the Astros would have exceeded their draft pool by about 17 percent, pushing them well beyond the threshold to tax them 75 percent of the overage and force them to lose two draft picks next year.
That's why they chose to make Nix's deal contingent on Aiken signing.
What do the players do now?
Well, technically, both Aiken and Nix can attend college. They are both committed to UCLA and could be teammates there next season.
The problem with that is, throughout the negotiations, there was a lot of public chatter about the negotiations. Casey Close went on record multiple times about the negotiations and it was implied by Astros owner Jim Crane and multiple reports Friday that Close was directly negotiating with the Astros.
If that's the case, it's pretty clearly a breach of the NCAA's guidelines for an amateur player in the draft. In the past, the NCAA has come down hard on players who had contact with agents while in college, forcing players such as former Kentucky pitcher (and current Mariner) James Paxton into independent ball after ruling him ineligible.
In order for either to play for UCLA for the next three years, the NCAA would have to clear them of any involvement with an agent.
Another option available is to attend junior college, which would make either player eligible for the 2015 draft, as junior college players can be drafted after their first year in school, while players attending four-year colleges must wait until three years after they turn 18 (typically after their junior year).
A third option is for the union to file a grievance for the players to get them ruled free agents.
Why is the union making noise about a grievance?
Historically, the MLB Players Union has taken a pretty hands-off approach with amateur players; they agreed to this hard slotting system in the first place, which created the mess.
But, in this situation, the union seems to be challenging what the Astros did. Technically, it doesn't appear that the Astros broke any rules, but they seem to have circumvented the spirit of the rules by trying to game the system and get under-slot bonuses to sign players who fall in the draft.
Of the two, Nix probably has the best shot at seeing a grievance. Since he actually agreed to a deal with the Astros and took a physical, he was all but signed by the team. That press conference never came, though.
Obviously, the Astros were waiting on the Aiken savings before formally signing Nix, but it's likely that they never told the player they needed Aiken to sign before Nix could get his $1.5 million. If this is the case, then the Astros could have breached a verbal agreement with Nix.
Because of his medical situation, Aiken could also see a grievance. The lefty apparently saw five different doctors, who gave both the team and Aiken's camp differing reports. If Aiken's doctors told him he's fine and the Astros doctors suspected an abnormality, Aiken could argue that he should be made an free agent, since the Astros trumped up medical issues to get a discount on his deal.
Would Nix also be a free agent?
That's a possibility, but the more likely scenario is that, if Nix wins his grievance, Houston is forced to honor its pact with him. Thus, they'd exceed the bonus pool by more than 10 percent and forfeit a pair of draft picks at the top of next year's class.
The Astros would also be getting a player who is likely unhappy by how all this went down and who may not want to be a part of the organization. There's a good chance that Nix would ask any independent arbitrator to declare him a free agent as well, instead of forcing the team to honor the signing.
What do the Astros do?
They get hosed. Public sentiment has turned hard on this Astros regime. The "2017 World Series Champs" Sports Illustrated cover has quickly become a source of baseball comic gold. Houston's grand rebuilding plan takes a significant hit, considering the team just lost the only three high school players it drafted in this 2014 class.
The Astros will receive the second overall pick in the 2015 draft as compensation for failing to reach an agreement with Aiken. However, they will receive no compensation for missing out on Nix.
Were there any winners?
Not really. Two young, promising baseball players are denied an opportunity to play professionally, thanks to loopholes in the CBA and an abnormal UCL. Astros fans lose out on another No. 1 overall pick, so soon after 2012 first overall pick Carlos Correa broke his fibula and 2013 first overall pick Mark Appel broke his ability to pitch well. Someone in the Astros front office is probably going to lose their job, too.
Oh, and baseball might lose, if the union gets upset enough at this circumstance to fight more contentiously in the next CBA negotiations. All in all, not a great day for anyone involved in this mess.
Astros suffer another black eye thanks to botched Aiken negotiations
Posted on July 18, 2014 |
CHICAGO — The worst came to pass for the Astros’ draft class of 2014 on Friday, another misfortune in a series that has turned what was once baseball’s most laughable franchise into its most divisive.
Lefthanded pitcher Brady Aiken, the first overall pick in the draft, did not sign with the Astros by Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The Astros’ final offer to Aiken, a 17-year-old from Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, Calif., was $5 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
The Astros will receive the second overall pick in the 2015 draft as a compensation — a much greater guarantee than Aiken has of returning to such a lucrative, high draft position. An abnormally small ulnar collateral ligament in Aiken’s throwing elbow, as the Chronicle first reported, led the Astros to scrap a planned introductory press conference and created a divide on Aiken’s worth, an ugly schism that the parties never bridged.
“We tried to engage the other side, (baseball agent) Casey Close, three times today,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said Friday, shortly after the deadline by phone from Mexico. “Never received a counter. Really, they just never engaged, for whatever reason, there was no interest. There just didn’t appear interest to sign on their side.”
In a domino effect that’s at the core of a systemic problem these negotiations highlighted, the Astros did not sign two other high school pitchers, fifth-rounder Jacob Nix and 21st-rounder Mac Marshall. Aiken and Nix were both advised by Close, the agent to Derek Jeter. Luhnow said the Astros made three increasing offers to Aiken on Friday, four days after Close ripped the Astros publicly.
Even if the front office played by the rules, the Astros have a long road back to credibility as questions linger for all parties to answer in a sweeping drama that could eventually bring significant change to the draft and its medical information process.
Earlier this week at the All-Star Game, the players union took the Astros to task for allegedly manipulating a collectively bargained system, and suggested legal action was possible Friday.
“Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers,” union head Tony Clark said in a statement. “Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options.”
Aiken and Nix could honor their commitment to UCLA but would not be eligible for the draft again until after their junior seasons. If they went to a junior college, they would be eligible for the 2015 draft.
Complaints from Close, who spoke out to FOXSports.com, and the union, fell into two buckets: the Astros were milking or exaggerating the latent danger in Aiken’s elbow so that they could find enough money to sign Marshall, a top-round talent who fell because of his bonus demands; and because they had improperly rescinded a $1.5 million bonus offer to Nix.
“We did nothing unethical,” Luhnow said. “We did nothing disingenuous. We tried to sign good players at the appropriate values and that’s all we ever do with the draft.”
MLB’s collectively bargained draft system allows teams to save money on some picks, which they can then reallocate to others.
The Astros were set to save on Aiken no matter if he signed for the $5 million final offer or $6.5 million, as was reported in June to be his initially planned signing bonus. The money they saved on him was to be used as an over-slot deal for Nix — the only other unsigned player in the Astros’ top 10 rounds, the rounds that are governed by an allotted pool of money. But because Aiken didn’t sign, every dollar of Aiken’s slot, $7.9 million, disappeared, leaving the Astros without enough money for Nix.
Had the Astros proceeded to sign Nix anyway, they would have put themselves over their allotment and cost themselves two future first-round draft picks.
Instead, a rebuilding plan that has at points seemed interminable is only delayed.
“We’ll have to see how next year’s draft class develops,” Luhnow said. “I think the slots are going up, so we’ll have the equivalent resources to spend in the draft, it’s just going to be next year instead of this year. I think it’s a one-year delay, and when you’re picking a young high school player (such as Aiken), the chances of you getting someone next year that beats (Aiken’s trajectory) to the big leagues is pretty good. I’m not that concerned about it. Obviously, our fans are disappointed, we’re disappointed, because you take a 1-1 hoping to sign him, expecting to sign him. And it didn’t happen.”
Luhnow’s point that the Astros could come away with a player who advances to the big leagues sooner is valid, but as one Astros person put it on Friday, “But what about this year?” The Astros have long been criticized for putting too much emphasis on an indeterminate future.
On June 5, the day of the draft, Luhnow called Aiken “the most advanced high school pitcher I’ve ever seen in my entire career.” He didn’t withdraw his words Friday.
“The talent evaluation doesn’t change, we don’t change what we think about the player from a talent perspective,” Luhnow said. “The risk profile changes when you get information that you don’t have when you select the player.”
The Astros had months to deliberate on whom to pick with the No. 1 choice but because of MLB rules were not allowed to give Aiken a physical exam until after he was drafted.
On a technical level, the Astros received the second pick in next year’s draft only because they offered at least 40 percent of Aiken’s $7.9 million slot value. But they’re going to take a beating in their public and professional relations in the short-term. They do not receive a compensation pick for losing Nix, the fifth-round pick.
Many questions abound. Does the union have grounds for a grievance because the draft is collectively bargained, even though drafted players have been ruled to fall outside the jurisdiction of arbitrator rulings in the past? Nix had only a verbal agreement, a person familiar with the negotiation said.
Can MLB’s draft slotting system and post-draft medical evaluation system — teams don’t see MRIs before the draft — remain the same?
Do Aiken and Nix face any potential issue honoring their commitment to UCLA because of potential NCAA eligibility issues? The NCAA does not permit eligible players to have an agent, and negotiating with a club or acting on behalf of a player in dealings with a club constitutes having an agent. Crane and Luhnow have both said they dealt with Close, and Close indicated as much by reaching out to FOXSports.com
The Astros, as one of the likely four worst teams in baseball at year’s end, could have two picks in the top five next season. But after service-time issues, after data leaks, with many Houston television viewers left unable to watch the games, with such a low payroll — they didn’t need this. The first overall pick this season was their greatest reward after a 51-win season in 2013.
This was the third straight year the Astros picked first in the draft. The 2012 pick, Carlos Correa, is lost for the rest of the season with a leg fracture, while last year’s selection, Mark Appel, is languishing at High Class A Lancaster.
“He’s been supportive throughout,” Luhnow said of owner Jim Crane. “We’ve been in contact with him throughout and he’s been involved all day.”
Kershaw’s Slider Gets Even Nastier
OK, now Clayton Kershaw‘s just being vindictive. The 26-year-old lefty, fresh off earning his second career Cy Young Award and signing the richest pitching deal in MLB history (seven years, $215 million), has brushed off an early-season back ailment and is inflicting nearly unprecedented pain on opposing batters.
He recently reeled off a 41 inning scoreless streak, the longest in the majors sinceBrandon Webb tossed 42 spotless frames in 2007 and tied with Luis Tiant for fifth-longest during the Expansion Era (1961-present). Kershaw’s 1.59 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) is the lowest ever for a starting pitcher throwing 90-plus inning during the live-ball era (1920-present), save for Pedro Martinez‘s 1999 campaign (1.33). And his 9.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio is fourth-highest among hurlers meeting those criteria, trailing justBret Saberhagen (11 K/BB ratio in 1994), Ben Sheets (10.55 in 2006) and Cliff Lee(10.28 in 2010).
Kershaw was already the game’s pre-eminent pitcher, but now he’s making major league hitters look like the poor souls tasked with facing him on the Texas prep scene. He’s accomplishing that by refining an already-sinister slider. How has Kershaw improved his nearly-perfect out pitch? Let’s count the ways.
He’s hammering hitters at the knees: Kershaw’s throwing 68.4% of his sliders to the lower third of the strike zone in 2014, up from 48.1% last season. The pitch is most effective when spotted at hitters’ knees: he’s got a career .161 opponent slugging percentage on low sliders, compared to .372 on middle-plate sliders and .267 on high sliders.
He’s expanding the strike zone: Hitters are chasing Kershaw’s slider out of the zone 50.2% of the time this year, up from 40.7% in 2013. No starter throwing at least 200 sliders this season comes close to matching Kershaw’s zone-stretching ability. Colby Lewis (46.3% slider chase rate) and Corey Kluber (43%) are a distant second and third on the list. Kershaw induced lots of chases on low-and-away sliders in 2013, but hitters are swinging even when the pitch practically hits home plate in 2014
He’s generating more wind power: Kershaw is getting swings and misses 53.5% of the time with his slider, a marked increase from 41.1% during his comparatively paltry Cy Young-winning 2013 season. He owns the highest slider miss rate among starters, toppingMax Scherzer (50%) and Ervin Santana (46.4%).
Time for Rangers to think about changing franchise's philosophy
Even in the best of times, which seem more distant by the day, if not the inning, the Rangers could be an ugly sight. Casual errors, drunken baserunning, bad approaches at the plate. Getting rid of Ian Kinsler didn’t change the perception. Nothing does, apparently, and that brings us to today’s sermon.
The Rangers once could make mistakes like those above and overcome them by clubbing teams into submission, occasionally outpitching them if necessary. Now that they’re capable of neither, their sins are more glaring.
And you can’t just blame everything in the first half of an unwatchable season on injuries, either. Some of the guilty are regulars.
So whose fault is it that Elvis Andrus still runs into outs and Leonys Martin hacks in any count and doesn’t always track a ball or hit a cut-off man and Neftali Feliz remains the greatest enigma since the Sphinx?
And why is it that when asked to cite players who show up every day with the right approach, Ron Washington can only come up with Adrian Beltre?
Is it the players’ fault? The manager’s? The general manager’s?
The appropriate answer is all of the above, but what it really means is that the organization should consider a change in philosophy.
Generally speaking, a player is who he is. You can make a player better in a lot of areas, but it’s nearly impossible to make him good at something he couldn’t do at all. There are, of course, exceptions. Don Nelson once said Dirk Nowitzki made himself into a good rebounder, something he’d rarely if ever seen. Either you’re a good rebounder or you aren’t. Another example: Mike Modano, who became a good two-way player under Ken Hitchcock after several years in the league as a purely offensive threat.
Probably helped that Dirk and Modano are/were talented individuals without egos to match. For that matter, no one in the Rangers’ clubhouse would qualify as particularly arrogant or egotistical.
But there has to be a reason that the careers of young, talented players have stalled and the Rangers have arrived at a crossroads.
You could blame Washington, which is easy and certainly popular. He came advertised as a fundamentals guy. He was supposed to fix the defense, and here’s how he did it: Every day, he wrote Beltre and Elvis into the lineup at third and short.
Washington’s signature talent has been creating a type of environment where they played hard but remained loose. This is no easy task. Washington was hard on Elvis early in his career, and it made him better. But you can’t ride a player forever, which is why Bob Knight coached players who had to leave after four years.
Either a player hungers to improve, or he doesn’t, and it’s up to management to find as many of those gritty types as possible.
Under Jon Daniels, the Rangers have built, practically from scratch, one of baseball’s best farm systems. Daniels isn’t saying or writing those opinions. It’s the take of seamheads worldwide.
What’s happened since is that Daniels has stripped the system’s top layer in exchange for proven talent, and the results were back-to-back World Series appearances and four straight 90-win seasons. You don’t have to develop players to win it all. Mark Cuban, you may recall, won a league title with essentially one wildly successful draft pick of his own.
But when players become too expensive to keep, you have to replace them. Lacking any ready-made players except Jurickson Profar, since injured, Daniels acquired Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder last winter to fix the Rangers’ offense.
Let’s just say neither has panned out so far.
To be fair, Daniels also signed Beltre and Yu Darvish. He got Alex Rios cheap, as well as Robinson Chirinos. He built two World Series rosters.
If he’s guilty of anything lately, it’s over-confidence in his once-vaunted farm system, especially on the pitching side. As for the lineup, after a decade under Daniels, these are the current regulars who came up through the farm system:
Elvis, Martin and Roogie Odor.
Meanwhile, the clubhouse suffers from a serious lack of charismatic leadership. As Washington noted above, it’s a party of one.
Bottom line: The Rangers have some soul-searching to do the rest of this season and into a bitter winter. They can’t merely wait for the injured to return. They’ve made that mistake once. They need to reassess what they look for in players. They need to be honest enough to ask why a World Series formula is no longer working, and don’t kid themselves that the answer is anything quite so simple as a really bad streak of luck.