John Hart was running on fumes late Thursday night. He had taken a red-eye flight back home from the draining Winter Meetings in San Diego, caught some semblance of nap, attended two fundraiser events for a children’s hospital upon arrival, said hello to his golf clubs and played in a skins tournament for charity.
“When I go to these things now, people say, ‘I never see you anymore,” the Braves’ president said by phone from Orlando, Fla., sounding hoarse from the past week. “When I walk by my golf clubs now, they cry. I could barely keep my eyes open today. I played awful. But I won three skins.”
Success on that front.
If only fixing the Braves was that easy.
B.J. Upton and the remaining $46 million on his contract: still here. The starting rotation lacks a true No. 1 starter. The bullpen has holes. Second base is deep — with backups for a prospect (Jose Peraza) who’s not quite ready yet. Justin Upton, a lame duck in left because of impending free agency, still hasn’t been traded, either because Hart is asking for too much or teams are offering too little. Same for Evan Gattis, who won’t be the starting catcher and projects as an “adventure” in the outfield.
The Braves are hamstrung financially, forcing Hart to watch as other teams threw out their gold cards — the Chicago Cubs for Jon Lester, Arizona for Yasmany Tomas, Boston for Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.
In theory, a lot of problems can be fixed with very few moves. Trading Justin Upton and Gattis for long-term, usable pieces would help. Getting someone to take on the lesser Upton’s contract would serve as a nice exorcism in the clubhouse.
But Hart has been trying all that since he got here. He had unproductive conversations with “six to eight” teams about Justin Upton. The other Upton: toxic, and it’s looking more and more like the Braves may at least bring him to spring training.
At this point, it’s only natural to wonder: What is the plan? Win now (2015 and 2016, in hopes of exciting a increasingly irritated fan base)? Or win later (2017, to coincide with the opening of a new ballpark, where parking will be at a premium, although at this rate that won’t be a problem)?
Hart denies he’s in strip-down mode. But he also acknowledges that the Braves aren’t nearly ready to compete with the Nationals. There are too many issues on the field and bookkeeping has $28 million hangover in 2015 (the B.J. Upton-Dan Uggla contracts). Hart and John Coppolella, the Braves’ general manager-in-waiting, feel like they’re attached to a ball and chain.
What bothers Hart the most is any suggestion that significant change would be cataclysmic. He’s right to this extent: Anybody who wants to defend former general manager Frank Wren is free to do so, but the truth remains that this franchise hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001.
The Braves have legitimate core pieces (Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel). What they don’t have is a team.
“Let’s be honest: This team finished 29th in offense,” Hart said. “It’s not like I’m breaking up the ’27 Yankees.”
There’s the new boss’ indictment of the old boss.
Hart, who came out of semi-retirement to direct this makeover and tutor Coppolella, acknowledged that he has come under some criticism. The Jason Heyward-for-Shelby Miller wasn’t celebrated by most, even with though Heyward probably was going to leave after next season anyway and Miller filled a need in the rotation. Hart also hasn’t dealt Justin Upton or Gattis yet. (It would be stunning if neither was traded, particularly Upton, whose $14.5 million salary commitment could be used elsewhere.)
But it will be more than two months before the Braves report to spring training and almost four before they play a game that counts. So Hart’s not pushing a deadline yet.
“We had a tough year, and I know there was a lot of speculation about us going into this winter,” Hart said. “We had the 29th-ranked farm system in baseball. We had some bad contracts. Everybody felt there would be some players we would definitely unload — become a seller, if you will. But we’ve never felt like there was something we had to do. Obviously we’re contractually obligated to some players who aren’t performing well. But just because 2017 is coming, it doesn’t mean we’re going to throw a hand grenade on the club and blow it up. That wouldn’t guarantee success for 2017, either.”
Hart points out the Braves would get a compensatory draft pick if they don’t trade Justin Upton, then lose him as a free agent. But obviously that’s not the preference, and every bidding team knows that.
B.J. Upton could prove to be the biggest headache. Hart said, “We’re almost at the mercy of him performing up to the level of his contract.” He said he hopes offseason work with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will help, but his words didn’t ooze with optimism.
“If somebody comes to us (with a trade offer), it’s certainly something we’ll look at. I harbor some hope that would happen. But the reality is this is a player who’s underachieved and is carrying a large contract, and until he proves otherwise, people are going to question him.”
But the ugly truth is teams don’t just walk away from a $46 million commitment. The Braves wouldn’t even do that with Uggla at $26 million before last season.
More ugly truth: This is not a team that can be fixed easily or quickly.
“We’re focused on doing what we can to put together a club that’s respectable and has a chance to win,” Hart said.
No grand proclamations.
It’s early, but adjust your expectations.
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