Braves follow Hart Doctrine, lock up young nucleus
Successful general manager in Cleveland in 1990s now an adviser with Atlanta
Thanks to the stroke of a pen (along with several more pennies for his thoroughly stuffed piggybank), Freddie Freeman isn't going anywhere soon as a player for the Braves. Neither is Craig Kimbrel. And they both should get used to having Julio Teheran around. The same goes for Jason Heyward. Not only that, when Andrelton Simmons gets his huge payday before long from management, the Braves will have their core players for a while.
Where did those running the Braves get such wisdom?
Well, they already had much of it. These are the same folks who constructed the roster that won the National League East last season after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. They also are a part of the system that set the foundation in the early 1990s for the Braves' Major League-record 14 consecutive division titles. The run produced five pennants, a World Series championship and legendary names such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox to join Jones someday in Cooperstown.
All of that said, let's connect some dots. Ever hear of John Hart? He is an analyst for MLB Network, and when he was the general manager of the Cleveland Indians for 10 years through the 2001 season, he sort of invented something on the fly. Here's the Hart Doctrine: if you're a baseball executive interested in keeping one eye on the present and the other on the future, and if you have a slew of young players with talent, then you should sign them to the longest contracts possible to drag them past the arbitration process.
Sound familiar? Now consider this: after Hart spent the previous eight seasons as a special adviser for the Rangers, he accepted a similar role in November with the Braves. Here we are, three months later, and Atlanta general manager Frank Wren is going wonderfully nuts with the Liberty Media checkbook by giving lengthy deals to young guys who can play a little.
Wren's spending spree began dramatically last week. On the same day he gave Heyward a two-year deal worth $13.3 million to buy out his last two arbitration years before free agency, Wren signed Freeman to a club-record contract worth $135 million over eight years. Heyward is an outfielder and Freeman is a first baseman, but they both are 24. A few days after that, Wren convinced Teheran to take a six-year contract worth $32.4 million, and the future No. 1 starting pitcher is 23. The day after that, 25-year-old closer Kimbrel's signature was on a four-year extension of his contract for $42 million.
Through it all, when it came to the many pros and the few cons during the organizational discussions of those deals for Freeman, Heyward, Teheran and Kimbrel (and the one for Simmons on the horizon), you just know Hart wasn't more than a few fungoes away. There is coincidence, and then there is the presence among the Braves' decision makers these days of somebody who turned the Indians from nothing into something outrageously good out of nowhere.
After Hart served as everything from a Minor League manager with the Orioles to a scout with the Indians when he first came to Cleveland in 1989, he soon realized what he had after becoming GM four years later.
Hart had a tremendous nucleus. Albert Belle. Carlos Baerga. Kenny Lofton. Jim Thome. Manny Ramirez. Sandy Alomar Jr. On and on the players of note went for the Indians. And with the franchise moving from dingy Cleveland Municipal Stadium to the lovely confines of Jacobs Field, Hart saw a chance for the Tribe to do something like win six division titles and two pennants during his tenure while playing before unprecedented packed home crowds.
Which is exactly what happened. You can attribute it to that nucleus Hart mostly kept intact with long-term contracts. Then he added free agents along the way such as Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser.
Still, the Indians' key was their version of Freeman, Heyward, Teheran, Kimbrel and Simmons. The Braves hope their version of Belle, Baerga, Lofton, Ramirez and Alomar has at least as much success as Hart's Indians.
"I can see what we're doing as an organization and ballclub," said Kimbrel to reporters this week at the Braves' Spring Training camp in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. He has been baseball's premier closer for the past three seasons with a 1.39 ERA and 381 strikeouts in 227 1/3 innings. Kimbrel also has either topped or tied the NL in saves during each of those seasons.
Added Kimbrel, "We're going out to win. As of right now, we're planning on winning for a long time. This is where I want to be. I want to be closing out division titles and championships and World Series. We've got the team to do it, and I'm very excited."
Kimbrel should be. When healthy, Heyward flashed signs last year of becoming the most prolific leadoff hitter ever at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. He already has a Gold Glove. Teheran mesmerized hitters in 2013 during his first full season in the Major Leagues with a right arm that struck out 170 in 185 2/3 innings, and he was particularly impressive down the stretch.
Then there is Freeman, now the face of the franchise. He hit 20 home runs or more during each of his first three Major League seasons. In addition to Freeman's .319 batting average overall last year (along with 23 homers and 109 RBIs), his .443 average with runners in scoring position trailed only the Cardinals' Allen Craig in baseball. Freeman also is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder.
"What we're, I guess, gambling is that by the time [Freeman's] free-agent years come in three years, that market may have inflated even further, and we've got a good deal," Wren told reporters. "We feel it's a solid market deal as [there] is for an above-average player."
Hart couldn't have said it better.