The John Hart Effect

John Hart is Special Adviser to Baseball Operations for the Braves

In November of 2013 The Braves hired John Hart as a special adviser to the baseball operations management department. There was debate then about his role and how he would impact the Braves front office. It now appears we’re beginning to see at least a part of that impact.

Why Hire Jon Hart?

Like many older baseball execs, Hart started out as a player but didn’t quite have what it took for the majors. He worked his way up through the ranks earning his stripes as a minor league manager for six years and eventually third base coach for the Expos. He moved back to minor league management with the Indians in 1989 and even had 11 games managing in Cleveland after Doc Edwards was fired that year.  In 1990 he became Director of Baseball Operations and in 91 took over as GM. While he was GM the Tribe put up a 870-681 record winning six AL Central titles in seven years 995-99 and 2001) and reaching the World series twice; 1995 and 1997.  He took over an organization that was a joke in baseball circles, played in a ballpark called “the mistake by the lake” and in a city opposing teams hated to visit. While there he revitalized the franchise, brought in a young staff – all of whom went on the be successful GMs – and woke up baseball fans in Cleveland where they set a record of 455 consecutive sellout games.  What fans outside of Cleveland remember about Hart was his at the time bold move to lock in his younger star players like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Charles Nagy in long term contracts before they were close to free agency. While there he became close friends with another successful GM; John Schuerholz.

Entering the 2014 season the Braves faced a lot of the same issues the Indians faced during Hart’s time as GM.

  • They have a bevy of young stars heading at warp speed towards a free agent market where salaries are growing exponentially
  • A team payroll restricted by a corporate owner – though that impact is really exaggerated by the fans.
  • A team planning to move to  a new ballpark three years hence.

The Braves practice of promoting from within left them short of experience in all of those areas. According to MLB Trade Rumors transaction tracker, Since 2001 the Braves have extended seven players; JS extended  Andruw Jones, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, David Ross and Brian McCann while Frank Wren extended Jones and Hudson again as well as Dan Uggla and Rafael Soriano; of that list only Andruw was getting close to free agency and that extension took place in a completely different kind of market. Taken together with Hart’s availability after his contract with the Rangers ended and signing him as an adviser during this confluence of events makes a lot of sense.

The story so far

We’ve heard nothing from or about John Hart since he signed on but the five year extension (eight years including remaining arbitration years) of Freddie Freeman and a shorter one to Jason Heyward look like Hart’s work. Last spring it was reported that GM Fran Wren approached both Heyward and Freeman but neither wanted to talk about extending. This year there seemed little reason for Heyward to talk since he is only two years from a big free agent payday. However, a $1M signing bonus on top of a $4.5m salary and a guaranteed $7.5M for next season convinced him.  Freeman’s extension is completely different.

I received significant heat a month ago when I suggested that the Braves either extend or trade Heyward largely because I opined that it would take a precedent setting contract to extend him.  The size of Freeman’s contract is if not precedent setting, certainly stretching the envelope. If you deduct estimates of Freeman’s projected arbitration over the next three years as one of our former writers Lee Troncinski pointed out in an earlier comment, the AAV of Freeman’s new contract in the out years is about $22M.  Heyward’s talent and his knowledge that there’s a big payday in two years would certainly have led him to ask for something in that eight year range but with a higher AAV.  That extensions were reached at all after failing in the past to even get the agents to talk to the front office at a time when both might well have been cheaper and the admission that talks on extending Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran have taken place all point the influence of John Hart.

When he was ask in a 1997 Sports Illustrated article about the extensions he gave while with the Indians Hart said he had learned from them.

“I was also naive  enough (when giving the early extensions to so many players) at the time as a young, aggressive general manager to think these guys would say, ‘Geez, we were taken care of before we proved anything. We want to stick around.’ That just isn’t the way it works.”

From that we can deduce that his advice would to sign those who would recognize that and respect the effort. By all accounts that’s Freeman.

I was told by someone I trust that Freeman off the field can party with the best of them – though I expect his engagement ended that. Interviews have shown him to be a humble and genuine young man, a leader on the field and in the clubhouse even if he doesn’t want to claim the title publicly. He’s unassuming. hard working and loyal, all things the Braves need to provide continuity in the post Chipper Jones era. The Freeman deal guarantees that he’ll stick around for eight years to provide that and plenty of hugs as well.

What might be ahead?

It’s impossible with any degree of certainty to know what impact Hart will have on future deals on and off the field. However we can look at what happened in Cleveland as they reached another transition in 1997 and later in Texas trying to clean up after Tom Hicks.

On March 25 1997 Hart traded one the faces of the Indians – Kenny Lofton – along with Alan Embree to of the Braves for Marquis Grissom, David Justice and $425,000.  Lofton was about to become a very expensive extension or more likely a free agent. The trade replaced Lofton with Grissom, added the bat they needed in Justice. Both players were under team control for more than two years giving them payroll certainty.

In February of 2004 Hart shuffled the deck in Texas and moved the unwieldy and franchise killing contract of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias. In 2005 he extended the new face of the Rangers franchise – Michael Young – for four years at $10.5M; that turned out to be quiet a bargain.

What do those deals mean to the Braves? Nothing in respect to any particular player but they do indicate these tendencies.

  • A willingness to do the unpopular if it’s the right thing for the team
  • An ability to turn lemons into lemonade
  • The ability to see individual qualities in a player early on and act on them if possible.

All of those and a vision unrestricted by preconceived notions of the way it’s always been done are things that will likely benefit the Braves in the near future.

Hart has his detractors of course. Some will point out that he let Albert Belle escape to free agency without getting anything in return and that he signed Hideo Nomo, paying him like an ace when he was no longer close to that. Both are correct but the idea isn’t that Hart is a genius or a clairvoyant and certainly he isn’t perfect.  He does however offer a view unhindered by internal history and preference. The Mark Teixeira trade doesn’t stare him in the face every time Elvis Andrus come to the plate for the Rangers. He doesn’t flinch when Adam Wainwright is a Cy Young candidate every year. He simply looks at the question presented and provides an unbiased opinion on the subject, the decisions still rest with Wren and company.

That’s A Wrap

“A consultant is someone who lives more than 100 miles away, hired to tell your company what you already know and who supplies a copy of a report you wrote.” (Anonymous)

As consultant or in this case special adviser to the baseball operations department, John Hart provides a new voice to ideas that may not be given a good look otherwise because we’ve “always done it this way.” Take file and trial for example.  At few weeks ago we heard the GM declare his position on file and trial.

“We have an organization philosophy of the filing date is our last date to negotiate prior to a hearing,” said Wren. “We’re done.”

That sounded pretty definitive to me yet a week ago we heard first that Freeman had agreed to an extension and later that Heyward had as well; obviously someone decided they weren’t done. I suggest that decision was encouraged and happened because John Hart was inserted into the process. Why? Well, I watched him on MLB Tonight after the Freeman extension and he was almost passionate about why the Braves were right to do it. He talked about looking at your players, picking the ones you see as the best shot to be a stable, productive player at a high level and signing them regardless of the risk. That’s not something the Braves have done successfully since McCann. I know the cupboard was pretty bare until 2011 but I bet Hart would have encouraged extending Martin Prado earlier.  The simple act of getting those extensions changed a lot.

In one day the Braves eliminated all the questions and prognosticating about Heyward and Freeman’s futures, knocked Brian McCann and Tim Hudson off the front burner for Braves fans and refocused everyone on the season ahead.  The only remaining arbitration problem is Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel literally broke the projection model because he’s done things that have never been done. The Braves reportedly offered Kimbrel $6.25M and said it was market value. Clearly in the 2014 market it’s not.  The midpoint between the two sides is $7.75M.  Yesterday Tyler Clippard agreed to a $5.25M one year deal. . . Tyler Clippard, the guy the Braves beg to see in the eighth inning.  I know, I know, Clippard is not a comp for Kimbrel; years, age, blah, blah, blah. . .Well look,  there is no comp for Kimbrel.

The Braves said they were done negotiating; clearly they weren’t.  Kimbrel and his agent saw that and can read about other signings so they have no reason to think they will lose in arbitration.  The Braves should get back to the table; when you’re going to lose anyway negotiating isn’t a bad thing and it can make the front office look magnanimous. At this point another 1.5 million bucks isn’t worth the time and aggravation a hearing will create. The Braves need to settle this one too and get on with spring training. It’s time for pragmatism to replace dogma permanently in Atlanta but I suspect John Hart already told them that.