Brave-Hart: John Attempts to Slay the NL East

Say “John Hart” and many baseball fans will immediately think of a two-word phrase: “Cleveland Indians.” Hart made his name with the wider baseball public by skillfully transforming the perennial doormat into a juggernaut. From 1995 through 2001, the Indians finished first six times and second once. They went to the World Series (and lost) twice. The Indians last postseason appearance prior to 1995 was the 1954 World Series, when they got swept by the New York Baseball Giants.

Say “John Hart” and some baseball fans will think of another two-word phrase: “contract extensions.” Hart was a first-mover in employing the tactic of buying out a player’s arbitration and early free-agency years, paying a little more now in exchange for a lot less later. This was part of Hart’s broader strategy, useful anywhere and necessary in Cleveland, of squeezing the maximum value out of every dollar spent.

Say “John Hart” and almost no baseball fans will think of yet another two-word phrase: “senior citizens.” One of Hart’s less-heralded strategies was raiding the top end of the aging curve, signing players well past their born-on dates to patch the numerous holes in Cleveland’s roster that a decent but top-heavy farm system couldn’t fill. In 1995, Dennis Martinez tied for the second-best pitching season in baseball history by a 41-year-old.

In a coincidence proving that our lives are governed by powerful yet unseen forces far beyond our comprehension, Hart now finds himself in charge of the other Native American themed major-league franchise. (I strongly advocate renaming the Cleveland franchise thus, but that’s a topic for a different post.)  Hart’s experience in Cleveland will no doubt shape his approach to remaking the Braves into a contender, but the challenges he faces in Atlanta are in some ways more daunting, and the solutions he employed in Cleveland may be less effective today.

The Spiders team that Hart took over in 1991 already had most of the high-impact players that would power the team to its seven years of dominance. Here are the starting 8, the starting DH, and the rotation for the 1995 team, along with the player’s age and bWAR that year. A “+” indicates a player Hart obtained.

C      Tony Pena (38/0.3) +

1B    Paul Sorrento (29/0.4) +

2B    Carlos Baerga (26/2.6)

3B    Jim Thome (24/5.9)

SS    Omar Vizquel (28/1.4) +

LF    Albert Belle (28/6.9)

CF    Kenny Lofton (28/4.1) +

RF    MannyBeingManny (23/2.9)

DH   Eddie Murray (39/2.4) +

 

P       Dennis Martinez (41/5.7) +

P       Charles Nagy (28/2.4)

P       Orel Hershiser (36/3.7) +

P       Mark Clark (27/0.6) +

P       Chad Ogea (24/3.2)

 

Baerga, Belle, Ramirez, Thome: those Four Horseman of Lake Erie (ok, fine, you try making a metaphor) were already in the house when Hart took over. He added two critical pieces to the lineup, however. Quickly deciding that Alex Cole wasn’t the answer to any baseball question worth asking, in late 1991 Hart obtained Kenny Lofton from the Astros for … well, go ahead and click to find out. Lofton was traded six times in his career, and in five of those trades the team receiving Lofton committed larceny.

It took Hart longer to give up on shortstop (and former second overall pick) Mark Lewis, but after 800 ineffective plate appearances, Hart had seen enough. Recognizing that this guy has made Seattle’s Omar Vizquel redundant, Hart reeled him in for the low, low price of Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson.

That still left numerous vacancies on the major league roster, and Hart set about filling them by purchasing AARP’s mailing list for Northeast Ohio. Pena, Murray, El Presidente, and Hershiser were all old enough to know their way around the bingo parlor, and Hart got value from all of them except Pena.

Hart made two key additional moves, bringing in failed starters Jose Mesa and Eric Plunk and showing them immediately to the bullpen. The two combined for a whopping 6.0 bWAR in 1995.

And then those contract extensions!  Below are the player’s maximum salary with and after playing for the Indians, 2015 dollars (millions), as well as their ages during their last season in Cleveland:

 

________             Hart           Age                Hartless

Lofton                       5.3               29                    10.9

Ramirez                    6.2               28                   28.1

Baerga                       7.1               27                      7.0

Belle                          8.6               29                    17.6

Thome                      11.6              31                     17.1

 

Hart struck gold in four of the five cases – except for Baerga, these players’ salaries skyrocketed after they escaped the Cleveland contracts. Baerga was a misfire – he peaked very early and the first year under his new contract (1993) was the last year he would be dominant. In the other four cases, however, Hart got the players’ best years at a relative discount, and then allowed his competitors to overpay for the decline years.

Not that Hart avoided older players entirely – as we’ve seen, he prowled Sunset Acres with almost sinister determination. The years he didn’t want to pay for were the early to mid 30s; those were the years in which he seemed to think that market inefficiencies most significantly favored the players. Before that window he could get maximum performance, and after that window he could get veterans at discounts reflecting the players’ acute awareness of their own career mortality.

Vizquel is the obvious exception, though even here Hart got a bargain. Vizquel’s salary maxed out at $7.5 million  with the Spiders (in 2015 dollars), astonishingly low for a player who, while he probably doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, would hardly be an absurd choice. Vizquel played for Cleveland from age 27 through 37, thus encompassing many of the very years Hart avoided with others.

Here Hart was perhaps exploiting yet another market inefficiency, the bat bias. Vizquel never really hit – he had just two years with a wRC+ over 100, and his career number is 83, which isn’t that great even for a middle infielder. But oh, could he field. Only four active shortstops have played more than 2000 innings and have a better UZR/150 than Vizquel’s career 8.7. Vizquel’s glove was solid gold, and his relative weakness at the plate meant that Hart could buy that gold at a discount.

The system Hart inherited in Atlanta had less talent than Cleveland’s in 1991, though Hart has set about remedying the situation. From last year’s regulars, only Freddie Freeman figures to be on Atlanta’s next postseason team. Atlanta’s system has three prospects in the top 10 of their respective positions, according to MLB Pipeline: Dansby Swanson and Ozhaino Albies (both shortstops) and Sean Newcomb (LHP), with Swanson and Newcomb being Hart imports. Indeed, Newcomb came over in exchange for one of those better-than-Vizquel shortstops, Andrelton Simmons, he of the career 21.4 UZR/150; a phenomenal figure but one of arguably less relevance since Omar’s day thanks aggressive defensive shifting. (This isn’t necessarily to say Simmons’ number is inflated by shifting, but rather that less range-y guys might provide relatively more defensive value than previously thanks to the shifts.)

Assuming Hart keeps them both, Swanson will move to third or (less likely) Albies will move to center; his bat is unlikely to carry any other position. Atlanta’s upper levels have little obvious offensive potential, with center fielder Mallex Smith being a conspicuous exception. Though still largely a stranger to top-100 prospect lists, Smith has a career .768 OPS in the minors, unaided by the PCL, and will be just 23 this year. He struggled in AAA last season, but overall looks like he could be a useful speed-oriented center fielder. And he got a big up here.

So the outlines of a playoff core are in place: Freeman, Albies, Swanson, Smith (or perhaps Ender Inciarte, another recent Braves acquisition), and Newcomb. Long-term extensions, anyone? Well, let’s see, Freeman already got his: he’ll be pulling in $22 million in 2021 in a backloaded deal that looks somewhat risky, though it ends at age 31. Swanson, Albies, and Smith will have to wait until they demonstrate some ability in the majors, but the chances that Hart can get away with low AAV contracts through the players’ late 20s seem slim.

In 1994 Hart’s contract extensions seemed like a gamble, but today they look like bargains for the team. Few agents would want to be associated with these kinds of contracts unless the player needs to give a character discount (paging Aroldis Chapman). Indeed, Freeman’s contract may be the model here – a great deal for the team in the early years, while the player claws some of it back toward the end.

With the Indians Hart seemed to generally eschew long-term contracts for pitchers – the limited information I’ve found suggests that he never went beyond four years, though often with a salary-boosting club option (see, e.g., CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon). So perhaps Newcomb can look forward to one relatively team-friendly 4-year deal to be followed by truckloads of cash from another team. One of Julio Teheran, Aaron Blair, and Touki Toussaint will probably fill the two spot.

As for the rest of the rotation, there are a lot of guys competing for probably two spots (the guys just mentioned, plus Manny Banuelos, Mike Minor, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, and maybe three or four guys in the minors). Again, some of these guys may get one 4-ish year deal before moving on. On the other hand, good pitchers today will probably seek at least 5 or 6 years unless, again, there are character or injury issues militating in favor of a discount.

You know his methods, Watson – Hart may attempt to fill any remaining rotation holes with old but talented pitchers. Expect the same for the lineup, but using the young players’ sweet contracts to subsidize those of the veteran imports may be more difficult now than it was in the 90s, since the youngsters are going to leave less money on the table than the old (young) Indians did.

Hart enjoys one modest but rapidly deteriorating advantage: the NL East is a tire fire right now. The purported contending teams (Mets, Nats, maybe the Marlins) are more dysfunctional than Springfield’s nuclear plant. The Phillies have done an admirable job of remaking the front office and the farm system, but the team is still a few years from contention. This sorry window is closing, though. All of Atlanta’s competitors (except the Marlins) have more money to spend than Atlanta does; their dysfunction won’t last forever (except the Marlins). And yes, the Mets have, or should have, money.

Say “John Hart” to Atlanta fans in 2019 and maybe they’ll say “World Series!” But the mountain is steep – today he faces better-informed players and more uniformly competent GM competitors, all armed with big data that was only beginning to come into view in the mid 1990s. Perhaps Hart will lead his troops to fight like Scotsmen; to succeed, they’ll probably need to.



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