The Chicago Cubs have finally clinched a playoff series at Wrigley Field. Let that sink in for a moment. It only took the Northside faithful 99 years to see their beloved Cubs clinch a series at the Friendly Confines. None of that matters right now though. Chicago’s youth movement powered them past the best regular season team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals. Both teams fought through the toughest division in baseball and survived to make the playoffs and we pitted against one another in the NLDS. Every baseball fan knows the lore of the Cubs. Wait until next year (the eternal optimist). The curse of the Billy Goat (very much real). Steve Bartman (the scapegoat for a team that fell apart after a fan did what any fan would do, try to catch a foul ball). Wrigley Field has kept the Cubs relevant even when the team was just plain awful. No matter how terrible the team was the bleachers were usually full even during mid-week day games. Wrigley Field was a destination for any and every baseball fan, including this one who sat in the right field bleachers three years ago during a Cubs victory against the Giants.
Some may call the Cubs, or some other team, a team of destiny. Others will say it is time to break all the curses and bring a World Series championship to Wrigley. Whatever you call them the Cubs are fun to watch. They are playing far beyond their years and appear to have the ability to make a run at winning it all. They are playing hard and with a style all their own. Manager Joe Maddon is managing the team the way he wants. He seems relaxed yet focused, which is rubbing off on his youth squad. They have escaped the Wild Card game, which was a bridge too far for the Pirates and Yankees. Undoubtedly, the Cubs have avoided the injury bug, which may have doomed the Cardinals. They have avoided the decisive Game 5, unlike the other remaining six team, where any and everything can happen, good and bad.
The Cubs were stripped down to the bones and rebuilt after a couple lackluster seasons following back to back seasons of playoff disappointments. Credit is due to General Manager Jed Hoyer and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for their masterful job in getting quality returns on their trades and through the draft. Both Hoyer and Epstein understood the task ahead of them and have seen the fruits of their labor. The Cubs might win the World Series this year, or they might not. Regardless how their season ends, the Cubs are relevant again. Go to any Cubs away game and it has the feel that you are at a Cubs home game. This can be annoying, but it speaks to the love and passion of the long-suffering fan base. The Northside faithful are hoping for a World Series championship. It is too soon to know if it is finally next year for the Cubs. However, regardless of what happens during the rest of the playoffs, the Cubs are moving on to the NLCS. This is good for these young players, for the Northside faithful, and for baseball. The game is better when every team has a legitimate chance to win it all every so often, and it is time for the Cubs to get their shot.
The Texas Rangers have won the American League Pennant the last two years and they should compete again for the crown this year. Although they have fallen short to the Giants and the Cardinals in the World Series, neither of those teams appear to be as stable or as solidified as the Rangers appear to be. The reason for all of this can be traced back to three separate trades that Texas General Manager Jon Daniels made in a two year span.
The first trade occurred at the trade deadline in 2006. The Rangers traded Laynce Nix, Kevin Mench, Francisco Cordero, along with minor leaguer Julian Cordero to the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. This move has paid huge dividends for the Rangers. First of all none of the major league players they gave up are in the same neighborhood as Cruz or Lee. They are all serviceable big leaguers, with the only All Star caliber player given up in the trade was Francisco Cordero who has gone on to average 39 saves since the trade. 39 saves a year is not easily replaced but at 36 Cordero is clearly in the twilight of his career.
The Rangers let Carlos Lee walk away as a free agent, which some saw as a bad move at the time. However, at 35, Lee is starting to slow down some and his big power numbers may be behind him. Keeping Nelson Cruz though has been a major asset to the Rangers and has proved to be a major cog in the team’s success. Cruz has provided the power to the Rangers lineup, while also providing solid defense in the outfield. Cruz and Lee put up similar numbers, although Lee hits for better average whereas Cruz has better defense. The five year age difference, Lee at 35 and Cruz at 30, is also an important factor. The Rangers held onto the guy who would be in the prime of his career once the dust settled and not the immediate impact player that Lee was. Nelson Cruz solidified the Rangers in Rightfield and in the middle of their lineup in the last two years and for several more years to come.
The second trade was with the Cincinnati Reds which brought Josh Hamilton to the Rangers. The Rangers gave up Danny Herrera and Edinson Volquez. The Reds waived Herrera; they felt the real prize was Volquez. This assumption was wrong. Since the trade in 2007 the careers of Volquez and Hamilton have gone in opposite directions. Volquez had the best year of his career in 2008, going 17-6 with a 3.21 era and being named an All Star. Since his magical year he has gone 13-12 with a 5.00 era. Volquez has since been traded to the San Diego Padres as part of the deal which brought Mat Latos to the Reds. Clearly the Rangers were following Branch Rickey’s advice of trading a player a year too early rather than a year too late.
Things have worked out better for Josh Hamilton. He has averaged over a 162 schedule a batting average of .310 with 25 HR and 94 RBIs. This includes the 2009 season when he only played in 89 games. He has also been an All Star in all four season, winning two Silver Slugger Awards (2008 and 2010 respectively), and being named the 2010 AL MVP. As feared as Hamilton is as a batter, he is able to play respectable defense in all three outfield positions. This trade clearly favors the Rangers in every way.
The final trade which has cemented the Rangers recent success was the result of a trade with the Atlanta Braves. The uniqueness of this trade is that the Braves have been renowned for their steadiness and always looking towards the future while continuing success. However, the Braves broke from tradition and made a trade for the present. The Braves landed Mark Teixeira at the 2007 trade deadline from the Rangers. Along with Teixeira, the Braves got Ron Mahay who would eventually leave as a Free Agent. Teixeira stayed with the Braves through the end of 2007 and until the trade deadline in 2008 when he was traded to the Anaheim Angels.
What the Braves gave up has not been of the same star power as the first two trades that GM Jon Daniels pulled off, but it has proved to be equally important. In return for Teixeira and Mahay, the Rangers received Beau Jones who has risen to AAA and will likely pitch in the Majors soon or be used in trade by Daniels. The Rangers received their starting shortstop Elvis Andrus, who is becoming a solid Major leaguer. Texas also got Neftali Feliz. He has been a dominant closer with back-to-back seasons of 40 and 32 saves. He also won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2010 with a 4-3 record, 40 saves, and a 2.73 ERA. Now the Rangers are converting him into a starting pitcher, with good results thus far in 2012 (2-0, 2.25 ERA). Matt Harrison has become a solid starter for the Rangers going 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA, and 126 Strikeouts in 2011. The final piece to the trade was Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Aside from having the longest last name in Major League history, Saltalamacchia was a catcher without a home. The Braves were set with Brian McCann and the Rangers appeared to have their catcher in Gerald Laird which made Saltalamacchia expendable. Ultimately he would be traded to the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline in 2010 for three minor leaguers and cash.
Jon Daniels and the Texas Rangers have pulled off three trades which have paid huge dividends in the past two seasons. The Rangers have avoided the pitfalls that many teams, including the Rangers earlier in their history, have stumbled into. Instead of signing established stars to monstrous contracts, the Rangers have gone about making smart trades which brings young and relatively cheap talent to Texas. The Rangers have built their team up the right way with an eye to the future and not just for the here and now. Jon Daniels has replaced Billy Bean and Theo Epstein as the hot GM in baseball, although with less fanfare. He is Billy Bean with money, but he is also the anti-Epstein for not simply buying hit team out of trouble. Will the Rangers get back to a third straight World Series? Can they finally win a World Series? Only time will tell. However, Jon Daniels and these three trades have made the Texas Rangers a team worth watching now and into the future.