When outfielder Matt Diaz walked into the Braves clubhouse at 4:18 p.m. on Wednesday, it seemed as if he’d never left. Only the Pirates equipment bag he was lugging looked out of place.
The Braves re-acquired the popular outfielder from Pittsburgh on Wednesday in a trade for a player to be named. The Pirates also gave the Braves an undisclosed amount of cash to cover a portion of Diaz’s $2 million salary in 2012.
“I couldn’t sleep much last night, thinking about what it would be,” said Diaz, who was told Tuesday night he would likely be traded, but not which team he might be going to. “Then at 10:30 this morning — Central Standard Time — I got the best news I could have imagined. I got on a plane within an hour-and-a-half, I think.”
He gives the Braves a right-handed bat off the bench to complement left-handed hitter Eric Hinske, and Diaz will also get some starts against lefties. He was immediately inserted in the lineup against Washington lefty John Lannan on Wednesday.
“The numbers show he can handle Lannan,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Diaz, who came in 12-for-30 (.400) against Lannan. “He can handle a lot of left-handers around the league, which is nice to have because [the Braves lineup is] so left-handed dominant.
“And you’ve got Hinske and him the days they don’t play, and I know from experience sitting [in the other dugout], it’s not a good feeling when you have Hinske from the left side, and Matt Diaz from the right side and you don’t know who to bring in [to face them]. Or if you bring in the righty to face Diaz, I could use Hinkse to pinch hit for him.”
Diaz, 33, hit .305 with 41 homers and a .353 on-base percentage in five seasons with the Braves through 2010, serving mainly as a platoon player and pinch-hitter. They made the trade before Tuesday’s deadline for Diaz to be eligible for the postseason roster.
The Pirates will get a player from a pool of lower-level minor league prospects the two teams have agreed upon. That selection could happen soon, but neither team said when.
Diaz signed a two-year, $4.25 million contract with Pittsburgh in December, after the Braves decided they didn’t want to pay the $3 million or so that he would have commanded through arbitration.
They had claimed Joe Mather off waivers from St. Louis in November expecting him to fill Diaz’s former role, but Mather was waived by the Braves in June after hitting .213 with one homer in 75 at-bats.
Diaz had a disappointing season with the Pirates, batting .259 with no homers and a .303 OBP in 231 plate appearances. However, he hit .295 against lefties including .370 since June. He was 11-for-44 as a pinch-hitter.
Against lefties, the Braves ranked last in the National League in average (.227) and on-base percentage (.296).
Braves pinch-hitters were 12th in the NL with a .196 overall average before Wednesday, though they led the league with eight homers.
“This just works out absolutely perfect,” Diaz said of returning to the Braves. “Hopefully baseball-wise, getting back here where I’m comfortable, and where people know my funky swing, hopefully I can get something to click and put on a push here at the end of the season.”
The Braves wanted to add a right-handed bat, and Diaz’s lack of home runs this season didn’t concern them, general manager Frank Wren said.
“Especially after the [July 31 non-waiver trade] deadline when we got even more left-handed, it’s been one of the pieces we were looking for to solidify our club,” Wren said. “We know Matt can hit. He’s shown that. He’s swung the bat very well, especially against left-handers over the last couple months. He’s done what he’s always done.
“I don’t think his power has diminished in a year leaving us. We’ve see him do what he’s done from a power perspective and hopefully back in a familiar environment that’ll show.”
Diaz was a force against lefties during his years with the Braves, with a gaudy .369 average, 17 homers and a .975 OPS against lefties during a three-season stretch through 2009.
His overall average slipped to .250 in 2010 with Atlanta, but he still hit .273 with five homers and an .830 OPS in 121 at-bats against lefties.
The Braves finalized the trade at about 10:45 a.m., and Diaz caught a flight from Houston to Atlanta. He went straight from the airport to the Turner Field home clubhouse that he’d worked out of for five seasons with the Braves through 2010.
“It’s like he never left,” said catcher Brian McCann, who had a quick reply when asked if Diaz could help the Braves. “Absolutely. Get some starts against left-handed pitching, get some pinch-hits off lefties; we all know he rakes them.”
A few minutes and a bunch of hugs later, Diaz and his once-and-again Braves teammates were back to the business of razzing each other and pursuing a playoff berth.
“Everybody’s happy,” Hinske said. “We need another right-handed bat, a guy that can hit lefties…. He’ll give us big at-bats late in the game against left-handed bullpen guys, and I think that’s one piece that we’ve been lacking. So it’s a good move for our team. Plus we know him. He’s been here forever. It’s great to have him back.
“I’m sure he’s happy to be back, too. I’m sure he really didn’t want to leave. Just the contract situation didn’t work out for him. So, go somewhere else for a little bit, and now it’s worked out for him and the organization. Good for both sides.”