Should we trust John Hart?
Is he the right man to “restart” (his word) the Braves?
Can he create a team that can pitch, produce runs and remain fueled by a strong farm system?
Will he deliver a team capable of winning a post-season series?
We pose these questions after Hart’s latest maneuverings. We understood on July 24 when he jettisoned Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson to the Mets for two pitchers who might never don an Atlanta Braves uniform. We didn’t like it, but we understood. Deep down we knew these Braves weren’t a playoff team, but they were competitive, watchable. Suddenly, reality struck. Like Shelby Miller seeking run support, blind faith had been broken.
Then came the shocker. When Hart dealt Alex Wood to the Dodgers last week, we waved goodbye to the Braves’ most consistent young pitcher over the past two-plus years. Joining him were new closer Jim Johnson, lefty reliever Luis Avilan, former top prospect Jose Peraza and Bronson Arroyo’s contract.
All for the joy of having Hector Olivera in the Braves fold. Along with two pitchers who might never don an Atlanta Braves uniform.
Olivera, the latest in the recent line of hot Cuban prospects, currently sits nursing a bad hamstring. He also nurses a bad right elbow which may or may not require Tommy John surgery.
Was it really worth trading Wood for a one-armed, one-legged utility player who at age 30 has never played a major league game?
Here’s Hart’s spin: the Braves got Olivera for about half of the $62.5 million the Dodgers paid for him earlier this year—after having outbid the Braves by about $20 million. And Hart envisions Olivera as a middle-of-the-order guy. The Braves could sure use a few of those.
Most interesting is that this deal showed Hart being able to place a price on a prospect. This is exactly what he did in June, when he sent the scrappy Phil Gosselin to Arizona for Bronson Arroyo. Those two injured players were merely window dressing. The key to the deal was Touki Toussaint, a 19-year-old pitcher. By assuming the $10-million left on Arroyo’s contract, the Braves were essentially paying that amount for Toussaint.
“You look up and say, ‘What if Touki Toussaint came over from Cuba and he was out on the open market?’” Hart asked Tyler Kepner of the New York Times two weeks ago. “What’s the value there?”
Here’s what Tony La Russa, the Diamondbacks’ chief baseball officer told Kepner: “There’s no doubt in our mind that four or five years from now, Touki Toussaint is going to be a quality major league pitcher. But our evaluation of our chance to compete and contend in October is much sooner than that.”
Hart’s nothing if not innovative. As Cleveland’s General Manager in the 90’s, he thought of signing players to long-term contracts well before they reached the threshold of free agency. This kept players like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Charles Nagy in Cleveland throughout that glorious decade.
A year ago, he urged the Braves to do likewise with Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, and Craig Kimbrel.
Hart’s Indians reached the World Series in ’95 and’97. No small feat, that. From 1960 through 1993, the Indians fielded but six winning teams. None ever finished better than third place or won more than 87 games—and that was in 1965.
Under Hart’s aegis, the ‘95 Indians went 100-44.
Interesting parallels: Hart built the Indians into a winner just as Jacobs Field opened in 1994. Cleveland immediately established a record of 455 consecutive sell-outs.
Hart also kick-started the rebuilding process by trading Joe Carter, the Indians best player, for prospects. Hart himself scouted the two key components of the trade: Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, two mainstays of the World Series teams.
Success didn’t hound Hart as the Rangers General Manager from 2001-05. But during the first half of that tenure, he was handicapped by a meddlesome owner, Tom Hicks. During the second half, he was under orders to roll back payroll.
And Hart’s track record in Atlanta so far isn’t bad. Through Sunday, the Braves had 47 wins. Thirty were notched by pitchers aged 24, or younger. And they just keep coming! The farm system had gone from one of baseball’s worst to one of its best.
And at what price? Does anyone miss last year’s strikeout obsessed lineup?
Though the Wood trade may have shaken your faith in Hart, remember that his track record merits the benefit of the doubt.