Former Indians GM and current Braves senior advisor John Hart discussed the evolution of extensions, as well as Atlanta's recent run of locking down young talent, in a fantastic interview with Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus. The full piece is required reading for anyone interested in understanding this key aspect of the transactional side of the game. Here are some of the many highlights:
- Hart spearheaded the now-widespread use of extensions while running a Cleveland club in the early-1990s that (like Atlanta currently) was loaded with young, impact ballplayers. Operating on a lower revenue, especially before the team opened Jacobs Field, the Indians started locking up players to avoid "run[ning] an entire class through arbitration" and to "demonstrate to our fan base that we were in this for the long haul." At the time, says Hart, his front office "sort of caught the industry by surprise" by locking up multiple players at attractive rates.
- Now, it is somewhat more difficult to get a "steal," Hart said, but teams can still "get a discount for the guarantee." He explained: "You're not always going to be successful on every guy. There's going to be different incentives and different factors in play." Nevertheless, he says, young players with "interest in stability" are still willing to reach deals that buy out free agent years. "With every success story comes with five or six crash and burns," said Hart, "and the players are aware of that. If you present opportunities for these guys at a younger age, you are going to have a willing ear."
- Though signing up lesser players carries "the risk of getting too locked down," Hart says that he expects to see increasing use of extensions for non-core players like back-end starters and relievers as teams continue to look for savings. Likewise, the increasing use of extensions by larger-market clubs, he opined, is merely a recognition that all organizations benefit from maintaining "a quality young core of players."
- In Hart's experience, it is possible to limit the risk that a player will not deal well with having sudden financial security. "These guys … recognize that there's another bite out of the apple potentially for them," he said. "There's just also the self-pride, the peer pressure, if you will, to want to be as good as you can be. … [W]e sort of knew what we had and didn't expect too much else. But I never saw anybody crash and burn."
- With regard to the current Braves club, Hart credited GM Frank Wren and president John Schuerholz both with accumulating the Braves' store of talent and with charting an extension strategy. In committing over $280MM in less than three weeks to extend Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, and Andrelton Simmons — none of whom has over four years of MLB service — Atlanta went on a stunning run of securing talent. That effort was aided, in part, by its breadth. "I think that was a little bit of the mindset as to why these players wanted to sign here," he said. "I think Frank did a great job. His strategy was Freeman one, along with Heyward. I think Kimbrel, you read some of his quotes, it was like, 'This makes sense to me because I know who I'm going to be with. …'" After the front office saw Brian McCann and Tim Hudson walk for large paydays through free agency, said Hart, "I'm sure they looked up and said, 'Nuh-uh, not with this young core.'"
- Hart said that Atlanta — like any other organization — had to operate within "the economics of that particular organization" and "their tolerance for risk." In Atlanta's situation, newly expected revenue streams played a major role, according to Hart:
"I think in looking at that dynamic, although the Braves wanted to do these things, that to do the numbers they did, there had to be some level of comfort that there was going to be a revenue stream to support what they're doing. The feeling here is that if we're going to make commitments, ultimately we are going to put revenue back into the club. … I think that's part of it, the ability to get that new stadium online, to have a potential spike in some of the television revenues. Obviously we're stuck with a deal that is well below the market, but they were able to do some other things with a portion of that."