Saturday, December 6, 2014

Spending Big on the Free Agent Market with John Hart

Clearly, after inking Nick Markakis to a four year, $44M contract, the Atlanta Braves are hoping John Hart has a great deal more success giving out long term commitments and the money they require than his predecessor, Frank Wren. The later was ridiculed for signings that blew up in his face, notably including the likes of Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Dan Uggla, and B.J. Upton. The first three on the list didn't finish their deals in Atlanta before being thrown away like moldy cheese. Upton might spend the next three years in Atlanta, but that seems rather unlikely.

So, it gave me reason to look back at Hart's big free agent moves of the past. Let's focus first on his time with the Texas Rangers, specifically in the role of General Manager between 2001 and the end of 2005.

Jan. 2002 - Chan Ho Park, 5 yr $65M - Hart's first big foray into the free agent market with the Rangers was a massive bust along with being really the only massively big signing I can find. The Korean-born starter was coming off his best year as a member of the Dodgers in 2001, but even that wasn't too much to write home about. Despite a pedestrian FIP and WHIP, Hart sunk a small country's GDP into Park. He got 68 miserable starts with an ERA approaching 6.00 before the Rangers cut their loses at the trading deadline in 2005.

And that's about it. You might have expected a flurry of moves by Hart and he did add a lot of players, both through trades and free agency. He notably acquired Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez, but he wasn't the one that signed A-Rod in the first place. Instead of focusing on large splashes in free agency, Hart acquired short-term fixes like bringing back Kenny Rogers or signing Ishmael Valdez. He also bargained shopped for talent, acquiring a former Brave in Mark DeRosa and a future Brave in Ron Mahay off the scrap heap. In addition, he picked a few key pieces to keep long term like Michael Young and the pitcher version of Chris Young. Hart was patient with a program that included, similar to what we have seen so far with the Braves, spending heavily on the international market in both talent and scouting along with stockpiling young players through trades. Notably, for the sake of Atlanta's prospects for future success, he was willing to move salary in effort to free the team from ineffective play.

Hart ascended to the main job in Cleveland in September of 1991, holding it until a self-imposed stepping down at the end of 2001. In those eleven years, did Hart go after the bigger free agents? It's more difficult to do quick research on this because the internet wasn't a real player at the time plus it's not all that easy to recall which were the big free agent signings.

Dec. 1993 - Dennis Martinez, 3 yr $13.3M - El Presidente was 40 by the time he joined Cleveland, but continued to post productive numbers, especially in their AL Pennant winning 1995 campaign where he started five games in the postseason, including throwing five scoreless innings in the deciding Game Six against the Braves.

Apr. 1995 - Orel Hershiser, 3 yr $6.35M - Some players found themselves very unlucky when the 1994 strike hit and they were pending free agents. Herhiser, the 1988 NL Cy Young winner, was one of those players. He was already in the middle of a gradual decline anyway and hitting free agency with business of baseball halted had to be nerve wrecking. He landed in Cleveland after an agreement to end the strike was reached and the 36 year-old would have a bounceback campaign in 1995, culminating in the 1995 ALCS MVP, which makes him the only player to win both the NLCS and ALCS MVPs. However, the success was short lived as his decline was back in play the following year. He was still a trusted member of the rotation, but the success wasn't there.

Dec. 1995 - Jack McDowell, 2 yr $9.6M - Two seasons removed from a Cy Young award in 1993, McDowell had spent 1995 in New York and was durable, but showing signs of decline. Hart, to his credit, only gave the 30 year-old a two year deal. He would start 30 games in 1996, posting his worst full season of his career, before injuries limited him to just 40.2 ING in 1997. His career was done before the 2000s began.

Dec. 1997 - Kenny Lofton, 4 yr $30.65M - We all know this story. Lofton, a well loved member of the Indians, was sent packing to the Braves before the 1997 season. The Braves needed to get out from under some salary in order to keep their Big Three together through the late 90's. Lofton would disappoint for the Braves and miss time, but would land back on his feet in Cleveland. However, the injuries would limit his abilities and he often missed time. By the end of the contract, he was in a steep decline.

Dec. 1998 - Roberto Alomar, 4 yr $30M - Of course, we all remember the Spitting incident, but Alomar was a tremendous MVP-type player in his time with the Indians. He OPS'd .920 as an Indian with 106 steals. He might have even better numbers had the Indians not traded him away to the Mets in 2002. Alomar fell on his face as a member of the Mets, OPSing over 200 points below what he had done the previous year with the Indians. His Hall of Fame career would last just two more seasons.

Nov. 2000 - Ellis Burks, 3 yr $19.5m -  Hart's last big signing was in response to the defection of Manny Ramirez. Burks, who had his career rejuvunated by Coors Field in the mid-90's, would produce greatly over the first two seasons of the deal, though he remained injury-prone. His final season in Cleveland was 55 games of mediocrity before finishing his career with an 11 game run in 2004 as Manny's teammate in Boston.

Throughout the final few years of his time in Cleveland, it would appear salary concerns became more worrisome for Hart and his Indians. They would remain a contender through the end of Hart's tenure, but maybe he saw the writing on the wall and got out of Dodge before the three-year streak of losing seasons that would immediately follow his departure. While he was much more apt to spend heavily in the free agent market in Cleveland than he was in Texas, the results were often good in the short-term, but not over the lifetime of the contract. He supplemented the Indians roster with shrew deals, but more times than not, he was paying a huge sum to a guy whose production didn't warrant the price anymore.

Now, it's worth mentioning that many of his small time signings panned out. Eddie Murray was a nifty signing for the mid-90's Indians.

But Hart appeared to buy heavily into the idea of the old "veteran presents." When in doubt, he was giving time to Dwight Gooden, Chuck Finley, and Bobby Witt, calling into question how many players were actually getting developed. There were some decent starters developed, including C.C. Sabathia, Jaret Wright, and Bartolo Colon, and a pair of decent 1Bs in Richie Sexson and Sean Casey, but in the late 90's, once this team started to win, Hart struggled to find good young talent to replenish the Indians with. In my mind, general managers really earn their salary when they can continue to bring players through the system regardless if they are being aided by a high draft choice. The Indians started to waiver there.

Can we make much of a determination on Hart's abilities to recognize good talent on the free agent market, properly assess it, and compensate it properly? He certainly has had more success than Wren in this field. However, it is concerning how often he handed out contracts to guys past their prime. Of course, it's worth noting that baseball has changed as well. Long-term deals are more accepted for whatever ridiculous reason. Teams have made their peace with the chance of injury locking up cash into a guy who is not playing or declining rapidly. Used to be that five years was saved for the stars. In today's game, five years can be reasonably demanded by middle relievers.

It's also worth noting that Hart tried a different approach in Texas outside of the ridiculous contract handed out to Park. It's an approach that the Braves could benefit from. Maybe we will look back at Markakis as the one ridiculous contract. I, for one, hope so.

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