Braves president of baseball operations John Hart is as surprised as anyone about the team's performance in the first half of the season.
Photo: Tom Priddy
Photo: Tom Priddy

John Hart: ‘I never made promises we were built to win’

I recently had two extended conversations with Braves president of baseball operations John Hart over the state of the team, the impending trade deadline and the future of manager Fredi Gonzalez. Here’s a transcript of those conversations, edited down for publication.

Q: So you gave up this wonderful semi-retired life of golf and broadcasting for what’s probably been an exhausting season. Are you sorry you did this?

A: Let me show you something. (Hart picks up his cellphone and shows a text message he sent to former Brave Fred McGriff that he sent at 4:11 a.m.) “We’re having a pitching meeting tomorrow from 10 to 1. You’re invited but mostly minor-league guys.” Fred responded later in the morning, “Sorry, I can’t attend. But why are you doing up at 4:11 a.m.?” I answered, “Hey, can’t ever sleep when the club has any issues.” So, yeah. But in all seriousness, the biggest thing I had to come to grips with was related to the personal lifestyle I had carved out. I had to make sure this was something I wanted to get my arms around. John (Schuerholz) said, “Let’s find a way to make this work.”

Q: If you didn’t take over after Frank Wren’s firing, do you think the next general manager would’ve gone the same route as you?

A: I do. They looked up and said, “We’ve got (Julio) Teheran and (Alex) Wood and we’ve got (Mike) Minor hurt. We’re losing (Ervin) Santana and (Aaron) Harang.” If you’re playing to win, you need three starters. It’s a precarious position for a general manager. We had to rebuild the pitching staff.

Q: That wasn’t the only problem you inherited.

A: I knew what the club was facing going into the offseason. At some point, you have to stop and ask, ‘How long are we going to chase this?’ We discussed it when I was a consultant. They asked me, ‘What are the options that you see?’ I was a part of the transition team. The problem was every time I would bring up (GM candidates), Schuerholz would go to the bathroom and Bobby (Cox) would find some way out of the room, and I’d be sitting there with my list of names.

Q: So once you said yes, what were your priorities?

A: I spent a lot of time looking at the minor-league system. We wanted to be able to grow the system and we also had some economic pieces out there that weren’t conducive to this club making moves. I had to think about moving some good players and I had to think: How do I attach good players to move money? I had some of the most unusual trade conversations I’ve had in my life.

Q: Is the team about where you expected it would be?

A: It’s been a fun club to watch. They play the game the right way. They play hard, they care. Are we undermanned? Yeah, especially when you take (Freddie) Freeman out of the lineup. But I like the team. We built it a little on the fly. We were sellers. We traded Jason (Heyward) with the idea that we can get a young starter and another on the way. We felt we could get that with Justin (Upton), but it didn’t pan out that way. We knew we couldn’t build the perfect club. But we put an emphasis on being competitive with winning-makeup guys. I certainly didn’t envision trading (Craig) Kimbrel, or I would’ve gotten more pieces to prepare for that. Then we got whacked with the PED thing (Andrew McKirahan and Arodys Vizcaino suspensions). That obviously hurt our bullpen and has cost us some games.

Q: So it’s not as if you expected a better record.

A: I’ve never made any false promises that we were built to win this year. We felt we had an energy and a good makeup. But you don’t trade your closer opening day, trade for draft picks, trade middle-of-the-order bats and expect to win. I won’t lie to fans.

Q: I had the sense you were going to be sellers at the deadline even before Jason Grilli got hurt. Is it fair suggest his injury really only took away a potential trade asset?

A: Let me answer it this way: When we went into the season I was as candid as I could be. We were going to have players who had good makeup and would play hard, but we never tried to fool anybody that we had high expectations. Some of these guys we had planned to bring back. Grilli had a two-year deal. There were teams that had contacted us, but we weren’t prepared to talk to anybody yet.

Q: Let me ask it another way: Are you going to be buyers at the deadline?

A: No. We’re not going to be big buyers. I’m not saying we won’t deal. But with Grilli going down and there’s an unknown with Freddie, we’re not in a position where we can go out and try to get three or four pieces.

Q: Freeman was supposed to be back a while ago. What happened?

A: It’s more serious than we expected. I’m hoping he’ll be back before the first of August, but he may not be. He’s working hard to get back, but it’s a slow-healing injury and it still gives him pain when he swings. He dinged it, played four or five days with it, and we have him a few days off. We gave him an injection and thought he would be back in two or three days, but it was no better. We did further tests and found it was more serious than we thought.

Q: Will we continue to see a number of young players come up in the second half, like in the first?

A: It’s a fair question. We don’t want to push guys we don’t think are ready. I know that’s a hard thing to define. But we’ve got so many youngsters up here now, especially within the rotation. We’d like to keep some veteran guys around, but we’re sort of running out of bullets. Folty (Mike Foltynewicz) did well when we brought him up the first time. At some point we’ll bring him back. At some point McKirahan, maybe (Jose) Peraza. We’ll play it by ear.

Q: Do you expect movement at the deadline?

A: We don’t have the big chip that will take somebody over the top. If people want good pieces and they can offer us something, yeah. But we’re going to take great care. We’re playing short. There is a very real possibility we won’t do anything.

Q: Did getting swept by Colorado change anything?

A: We’re a little vulnerable right now. We thought we could get a split in the series, but we got waxed four times. Now you’ve lost your closer, and you’re not sure when your big bat is coming back. We’re getting closer to taking a look at this: Do we pick up the phone or answer the phone? I’m not sure yet.

Q: When you dealt Kimbrel, you were pretty open about how exposed it left your bullpen.

A: Because we didn’t have the chance to prepare for it. Before that, we really felt the bullpen could be a strength for us.

Q: But was your only chance to get rid of B.J. Upton’s contract.

A: That was obviously the intent. We had 10 calls on Kimbrel in the winter, but we just hung up because they wouldn’t take an off-load. San Diego was one of the clubs that came up early.

Q: Did it shock you when they said they would take Upton?

A: Yeah, it did. They put all of their chips in.

Q: Like the Braves two years ago. It didn’t work for them, either.

A: Yeah, I know.

Q: Would you do any of your big four offseason trades differently today?

A: (Laughing.) I’d probably do everything differently, but that’s the way I am. The Heyward deal, we got what we wanted (Shelby Miller). We tried for other second pieces, but we were happy with (Tyrell) Jenkins. The Justin Upton deal we (discussed) so many pieces. The guys we wanted, they didn’t put in — they got put into another (trade). But we got Jace Peterson. Gattis, we looked at a lot of different names. There were some circumstances that didn’t work out. Kimbrel, we moved some money and got pick 41 and (Matt) Wisler.

Q: Any regrets about dealing Gattis, given Christian Bethancourt’s struggles.

A: It had nothing to do with Bethancourt. It was more to do with Gattis and his availability to catch 115 to 120 games. We didn’t feel he could do that. If we kept him, we would’ve tried him in left field.

Q: Are you worried about Bethancourt?

A: I really like his skill set. I don’t think he has embraced what it is he needs to do to sell out to his pitching staff, to drive the train. We sent him to Gwinnett, and I told (manager Brian Snitker) the boxes I wanted checked: shows up early, prepares for game, goes over scouting report, works the pitcher. Go through those intangibles.

Q: You’re talking about dedication.

A: Not dedication. It’s a level of preparedness you need for what Roger (McDowell) expects and a championship organization expects, especially when dealing with young pitchers.

Q: So he doesn’t understand what it takes.

A: You put it well.

Q: Did the organization miscalculate his readiness?

A: We talked about it in the winter. We called him up last year, and he had a good first month and a not-so-good last month. That sort of left a bad taste. It’s fixable. But at some point the player has to assume some responsibility.

Q: How has Fredi Gonzalez dealt with the personnel changes?

A: When we got together over the winter I told him: “You’re going to be a part of what we do here, as far as acquiring players, making deals and understanding the dynamic.” We made moves that Fredi knew were going to hurt him, but he never complained. He said, “Whatever’s good for the organization.” I know I haven’t given him all the weapons he needs. His handling of the bullpen — I look up and think, “Well, how could anybody (handle this group)?” He’s a winning man, he loves and cares about the Braves and he’s done a superior job. I was candid with Fredi: “I know you’re in your last year (of a contract). We’re making a run-through here, and we’ll make the call when it’s appropriate.” But Fredi is always ready to help figure out the solution to a problem.

Q: Will that be a tough call at the end of the year?

A: I don’t think so.

Q: As in, he’ll be brought back?

A: I don’t want to go there. There’s timing. But Fredi’s been really good. He’s been good to work with, and he’s done a good job with his staff. And this club may fall apart, but I know if it happens, it’s not going to be because Fredi forgot how to manage.

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