Hart paved way for Braves' long-term extensions
Atlanta adviser credited with creating core-building strategy in 1990s with Tribe
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Upon hiring John Hart to serve as a senior adviser to their baseball-operations staff, the Braves said the decision made sense on a number of fronts.
Along with being one of Braves president John Schuerholz's closest friends in the baseball industry, Hart had just completed the final year of his contract with the Rangers, who had utilized him in this same role ever since he ended his days as their general manager after the 2005 season.
Hart's attraction to this opportunity was also influenced by the fact that the Braves' Spring Training complex is just a short drive from his Orlando-area home.
What was not revealed, when he was hired in November, was that the Braves were already planning to lock up many of their young talented players, much the same way Hart did when he essentially created this model while serving as the Indians' general manager during the 1990s.
Had Hart not accepted his current role, the Braves were still going to take the steps that led to them signing Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran to long-term extensions over the past few weeks. But there was certainly a benefit to Hart's presence and guidance through this process.
"He's a great asset for us to have in-house," general manager Frank Wren said. "But we had started this process even before he had joined us. So it was great to have him sitting in on some of the meetings as we were progressing and having some of those conversations. But also the landscape has changed. He'll be the first to tell you that it is a different environment than it was in the early 1990s, when they became the first club to make this approach to signing young guys vogue."
When Hart became Cleveland's general manager in 1992, he assumed leadership of an organization whose revenues were limited by its market, an old stadium and the team's on-field struggles that stretched over four decades. Through trades, international scouting and the First-Year Player Draft, he quickly built a young, talented core much like the one that currently exists in Atlanta.
As he began to plan for the future, Hart wanted to avoid what had just transpired in Pittsburgh, a neighboring Rust Belt town that also possessed a Major League club with limited revenues. Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla were key components to the success the Pirates had during the early 1990s, when the city celebrated three consecutive division titles. But when their star players were eligible for free agency, the Pirates were unable to match the offers on the free-agent market.
So after getting his first chance to be a GM at the big league level, Hart rolled the dice by signing Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga to long-term deals before they were eligible for arbitration. This set the stage for long-term deals that likely kept Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez in Cleveland longer than if all of these players had been allowed to go through the arbitration process.
"Our deals were so different because we caught the agents and the union by surprise," Hart said. "It had never been done before."
A little more than 20 years later, Hart is able to laugh about the fact that he offered these extensions and then faced scrutiny from the media and his peers. Former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire was among those who called and essentially said, "What are you doing?" Now, Hart is celebrated as the creator of the philosophy that many clubs have attempted to follow when blessed with young promising talent like the Braves, who now have the comfort of knowing they have positioned Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons and Teheran to be together when the club moves into its new stadium in 2017.
"What [Wren and Schuerholz] have done here in Atlanta is about as good as you would want to do it," Hart said. "The real key for me is that we as an organization have been able to take homegrown, star-quality players at the prime of their careers and keep them Braves. That is the one of the reasons I wanted to do it in Cleveland. I've seen other teams do it, and it hasn't worked. This one was very good. They got real good players in the prime of their careers, homegrown guys. It's hard to argue with that."
Over the next few years, the Braves will gain a better feel for exactly how wise it was to take the risk of making substantial financial commitments to each of these four players.
But it is safe to say Wren feels better about the stability of this core than he did a month ago, when he did not know exactly how much cost uncertainty would be created if these players reached the arbitration process.
"We were able to have such a good core that it was imperative for us to tie up as many of them as possible," Wren said. "There will be more as we go forward because we have a good, young, dynamic group."
Freeman's franchise-record eight-year, $135 million deal was sealed months after he finished fifth in balloting for the National League MVP Award. Kimbrel's four-year, $42 million deal comes with the comfort that he has spent the past three years establishing himself as arguably the game's premier closer.
The Braves have taken a little more of a risk with Simmons, who signed a seven-year, $58 million extension, and Teheran, who inked a six-year, $32.4 million contract. These commitments were made despite neither of these players having played more than one full season at the Major League level.
"I would have been happy if we could have gotten two [extensions] done," Wren said. "I don't think you ever go into it knowing exactly how it's all going to turn out. But I think we're pleased the way it has worked out. We feel like there is still others that we'd like to extend and add to the long-term mix."
It is too early to know whether Jason Heyward will get a long-term deal to continue playing in his hometown. But Hart believes the club took a wise step three weeks ago, when it gave Heyward a two-year, $13.3 million deal that bought out his final two arbitration-eligible seasons.
"I never did deals with guys who were arbitration eligible unless I got something back," Hart said. "I didn't want to just take a guy through his arbitration years. But I think in the case of Heyward, it was a phenomenal strategy, and the message was clearly delivered that they really like this guy and they want to keep this guy. Nobody knows where his ceiling is. It hasn't been defined yet because he has had a lot of injuries coming along."