Hart, Braves following familiar rebuilding blueprint
Atlanta president of baseball operations guided pennant winners in Cleveland
By Hal Bodley
One day during Spring Training in the early 1990s, John Hart pulled out a tablet, put it on the table and in so many words, complete with jottings, told me about his blueprint for the Cleveland Indians.
Hart was in his beginning years as the Indians' general manager, he oozed with energy and it wasn't like he was re-inventing baseball, but he said his plan just might make the Tribe competitive for years to come.
I listened, wondered and was admittedly skeptical. The Indians hadn't been to the postseason since 1954.
Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) was to open on April 4, 1994. It was Hart's goal to build a team that would not only be competitive, but entice fans to come to the new venue that was to replace the old, cavernous Cleveland Stadium.
Hart's blueprint was this: Build the team's nucleus through the Draft, emphasize smart scouting and, yes, make wise trades.
Even more important was Hart's theory to sign young players to multiyear contracts before they were eligible for arbitration. Knowing the youngsters would be around for a while was comforting for the veterans who then preferred to remain with the Indians. It also helped attract the likes of Eddie Murray, Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez and Tony Pena.
"We were building with youngsters from our own system, and at some point we wanted to stop the revolving door," said Hart. "We tied up players such as Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Paul Sorrento, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Charles Nagy, Kenny Lofton, Bartolo Colon. These were really good players."
The Indians went on to win six American League Central titles and played in the World Series in 1995 and '97.
That seems like a long time ago, but for Hart, now president of baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves, it could be déjà vu. It is much more difficult to sign very young players to multiyear deals now, but rebuilding is his forte. The moment the Indians moved to Jacobs Field, their rebuilding was over.
The Braves, who've struggled the past two seasons, have virtually been torn apart by Hart and John Coppolella, his general manager. They're rebuilding for the future, much like Hart did in Cleveland, as the team prepares to enter a new era when SunTrust Park opens in April.
Atlanta is not expected to overtake the Nationals or Mets in 2017, but aside from adding two veteran pitchers -- including Colon -- Hart has stuck to the same blueprint he used in Cleveland. The Braves played well as 2016 ended, creating momentum and optimism for the future. Under Brian Snitker, who replaced Fredi Gonzalez in May as manager, the Braves were 37-35 after the All-Star break and won 20 of their final 30 games.
"It was fun to watch," said Snitker, who's been in the Braves organization for 41 years. "It was very gratifying; it said a lot about those guys, which I saw when I first got there. The record was bad, they had been beat over the head, just things weren't meshed real good. But the day-in, day-out preparation, the clubhouse, how they played the game was very impressive."
The Indians finished sixth in the division in 1993, but climbed to second place when the AL Central was established in '94 before the players' strike cut the season short. In '95, they won their first of six AL Central titles under Hart. He was named MLB's Executive of the Year in '94 and '95.
Now 68, Hart is the first to admit there are numerous coincidences with the Braves and what the Indians did in the 1990s. Jacobs Field had 455 consecutive sellouts, a streak that did not end until 2001.
Hart believes SunTrust Park will be a game changer for the Braves.
"The ballpark is going to be spectacular," Hart said. "I think it's going to be an attraction. There's a lot of baseball players that are born and raised in the south that at some point are going to want to come play close to home. And this is going to have everything they want."
Rebuilding is always painful, especially when favorite players are traded away. But as the Braves begin 2017, they're knee-deep in young talent, much like the Indians of the early 1990s.
"It still is about the players," Hart said. "That is the real key. The good organizations, the good teams, the good baseball people still have an instinct and a knack for identifying and finding players."
When the Braves signed 43-year-old Colon and 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, critics said the rebuilding-with-youth plan was being scrapped.
"Moving into the new ballpark and with the way this team played at the end, especially offensively and bringing up Dansby Swanson and seeing what he could do for us, we needed starting pitching," said Hart. "We didn't want to stand in the way of our young pitchers, so we went with guys who I think are going to give us innings. I think this gives us a more competitive ballclub going into the new park. I don't think this deviates from the plan we have."
Swanson, the shortstop, is ranked by MLBPipeline.com as the Braves' top prospect and will be just 23 in 2017. He played in 38 games at the end of last season and batted .302, with 17 RBIs and three homers.
First baseman Freddie Freeman is now the face of the Braves. He's just 27, but he has established himself as one of the Majors' premier young talents. Freeman had 34 homers and 91 RBIs to go with his .302 average.
A sleeper might be the signing of free agent Sean Rodriguez. He's very versatile, and he will be a veteran presence in the clubhouse. He's played with the Rays and Angels, and last season he batted .270 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs for the Pirates.
The blueprint Hart used in Cleveland might be a little old and maybe even somewhat outdated in this era, but it worked well for the Indians and it should do the same thing for the Braves.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.