– Cruz Serrano
After a disappointing end to the 2014 season, most Braves fans were disheartened, but also realized that not all had been lost. Although the Braves may have underperformed, the core of great players still remained. Justin Upton and Jason Heyward buoyed the outfield, while Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman were still manning their positions on the infield. With the pitching staff still solid as always, all Braves fans wanted was a couple tweaks and another run in 2015. Instead what they got was John Hart’s complete home makeover.
Hart replaced former Braves’ GM Frank Wren in an interim role after he was fired. To try and argue that Wren didn’t deserve to be fired would be a fruitless argument. Wren signed Melvin Upton (the artist formerly known as BJ) to what may have been the worst free agent deal in Braves history. Add in the fact that he traded for and extended Dan Uggla who was just as bad as Upton, and also extended the stone gloved third baseman Chris Johnson, and you can see that Wren didn’t exactly do the best job when it came to deciding which players to count on for the long term. Wren also depleted the Braves farm system. Under previous GM John Schuerholz the Braves were always known for their depth, always seeming to bring up young talent that was ready to help the Braves win; essentially rebuilding on the fly for close to twenty years. After Wren was fired in 2014, the Braves were left with a bottom tier farm system and a major league team that was caught in-between; good but not great.
For those too young to recall, or those whose memory banks fail them, John Hart has done an outstanding job when at the helm of other clubs. Although he never advanced to the playoffs with the Texas Rangers, Hart brought in premium talent that was integral in the success of the team under GM John Daniels. Also, as a senior advisor while Daniels was GM, Hart still played a key role in the front office of a team that advanced to two straight World Series. And looking back a little further, Hart was the man that built what may have been the best American League team in the 1990’s that could never seal the deal. Hart was nothing short of spectacular with the Indians. Prior to his taking the reins as the GM, Hart was the president of baseball operations, where he began to build the scouting department that would help to bring in the amazing amount of talent that littered the Indians roster for the entirety of Hart’s tenure with the team. By signing the likes of Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Kenny Lofton and others to deals that bought out their years of arbitration eligibility, Hart was able to attain some financial stability at a time when player salaries were skyrocketing. With the core he half inherited and half built, Hart’s teams in Cleveland went on to post a record of 870-681 while under his control.
Now we jump back to the present day. John Hart, who is essentially an interim GM helping to groom John Coppolella the current assistant GM, is trying his best to build one last winning team. Baseball has changed a bit since Hart’s major success in Cleveland, however one of Hart’s best attributes as a front office executive was his keen sense on player evaluation which one would assume would remain despite the changes in the baseball climate. When he took over the Braves, Hart definitely found himself in a much different job than the one he inherited in Cleveland. For all of Frank Wren’s faults, he did a good job of building a good major league team that was poised to compete for a few years. However the team wasn’t good enough to ever really contend deep into the postseason. The holes in the lineup provided by the bad contracts Wren handed out, along with the lack of a dominant starting pitcher made the Braves a vulnerable tagert once they reached the postseason. To add to the problems, the Braves had a bottom five farm system with a lack of any impact talent for the foreseeable future.
In Cleveland, Hart’s team was had a plethora of young talent, some of which he mishandled in order to acquire veteran players that didn’t perform at the level he expected. Regardless, Hart had talent up and down his system and was able to use his system to help build the major league roster. So when starting in Atlanta, Hart made his presence felt by beginning to build a system that was ravaged by the previous regimes reign of terror. Hart made his plan clear, do whatever it takes to acquire young premium talent that would make an impact at the major league level in the foreseeable future. Rather than worrying about posterity with a fan base that had watched their team compete for the last 20 plus years, Hart cut ties with players that were considered fan favorites in order to help ensure the future success of the team.
On top of acquiring talent in return for star players like Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, Hart was also able to use the Braves open payroll to take on bad contracts from other teams, along with which he also got premium prospects, draft picks, and international bonus pool money to help sign international free agents. So Hart was able to essentially buy young prospects by taking on payroll that wasn’t being used anyway. Hart also took some big risks, acquiring young pitchers like Max Fried and Manny Banuelos who were once regarded as top pitching prospects, but have had Tommy John surgery and their once bright futures have become tarnished with question marks. However these chances are vital for a team that wants to rebuild quickly and efficiently, rather than drawing it out through the first few years in their new ball park.
Whether Hart’s complete restructuring of the Braves system pans out will not be seen for at least a couple years. However he has definitely helped make it become more likely than not, as the Braves farm system is currently ranked 2nd in baseball according to ESPN’s Keith Law, and the team has many highly regarded prospects according to other scouts and baseball insiders as well. At the major league level Hart’s impact has already begun to reverberate, with players making positive contributions on a team that has fared much better than anyone could have anticipated. Rookie Jace Peterson has played phenomenal defense at second base while providing some solid offense. Veteran salary dump Cameron Maybin has seemingly resuscitated his career which once saw him as one of baseball’s top prospects. Shelby Miller, who had already had a couple full big league seasons under his belt, has come in and become an anchor in the Braves inconsistent rotation. And young pitchers Matt Wisler, Arodys Vizcaino and Mike Foltynewicz have shown flashes of brilliance that have caused many scouts to believe they all can be key contributors at the major league level. While the impact at the major league level has been seen, the young talent Hart has accumulated in the farm system is what makes the future seem so bright. The acquisition of supplemental draft picks, the only kind that can be traded in the MLB, allowed Hart and company to have the best draft the Braves organization has seen in years.
Along with the draft, Hart has roped in some high risk/high reward type prospects like the pitchers recovering from TJ that were mentioned earlier. Along with these pitchers, another pitcher that has been seen as a possible risk is Touki Toussaint who was acquired from the Diamondbacks. He was acquired in a trade along with Bronson Arroyo who is nearing 40 and currently rehabbing from a Tommy John surgery himself. In return the Braves sent the Diamondbacks replacement level infielder Phil Gosselin. Essentially the Braves bought the rights for Toussaint for the price of Arroyo’s remaining $5+ million dollar salary this year and presumably the $4.5 million dollar buyout at the end of the season. $10 million dollars for a tantalizing arm like Toussaint seems like a coupe. Toussaint throws in the upper 90’s with a sharp curveball, oh yeah and he’s only 19. However Toussaint’s biggest flaw is his inability to find consistency with delivery and control of his pitches. He is a volatile prospect, and as Dave Cameron of fangraphs points out, there is something like a 9 in 10 chance that Toussaint never makes an impact at the major league level. However, Cameron goes onto explain that even with this level of volatility, in the current market the valuation of a prospect like Toussaint may be closer to $20 million because of the tendency of rich teams to over pay for prospects that are lesser than Toussaint. So even when Hart has taken what seem to be bigger risks, the case can be made that he still continues to keep the scales in his favor.
Going forward things will remain interesting; will Hart be willing to trade players like Maybin, who have made a huge impact for a team that was supposed to be awful? How will the crop of young pitchers Hart acquired that have had Tommy John surgery fare as they try and make their way to the major league level? Even with the influx of talent, has Hart done enough to insure that the Braves will be ready to be legitimate contenders when their new park opens in 2017? Speculating on these things is a fool’s errand; however I suppose one can hope. Personally I hope John Hart makes a positive impact on one more major league franchise. I hope Hart continues to pull the trigger on trades right up until opening day 2017, moving players without caring about the whining fickle fans. Even if the team isn’t ready by 2017, I will know that John Hart and company have done everything they can to help get to that point. Hart has made me a believer, and I can’t wait to see where this team is in a couple short years.
Below is a summary of the moves John Hart has made for the Braves and the impact each has made thus far:
|Braves Key Additions:||WAR||Braves Key Subtractions||WAR|
|Juan Uribe||1.6||Jason Heyward||2.7|
|Nick Markakis||1.4||Justin Upton||1.9|
|Shelby Miller||2.3||Jordan Walden||0.4|
– Cruz Serrano (@cruzin_usa)