There will be no major league postseason team coming out of Chicago’s North Side this year, but the Braves looked to Wrigley Field to find a couple of missing pieces to bolster their own playoff aspirations.
The Braves filled their two biggest needs with one trade late Monday, getting left-hander Paul Maholm and veteran outfielder/pinch-hitter Reed Johnson from the Cubs in exchange for a pair of minor league pitchers, highly regarded prospect Arodys Vizcaino and right-hander Jaye Chapman.
“It was a perfect fit for us. Let’s just put it that way,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said after midnight, nearly 14 hours before Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
“We got two real key pieces for us that we were looking for. If nothing else materializes tomorrow, we’ll be very happy with where we are right now and think our club is positioned well. And obviously we’ll keep watching once we get into the waiver period, but we feel like it positions us well.”
The Braves tried to trade for a versatile middle-innings relievers Tuesday but didn’t find a deal in the relatively limited pool of available pitchers. Nonetheless, they considered this trade deadline a success after landing Maholm, who’ll make his Braves debut Saturday against Houston, and Johnson.
Maholm is 9-6 with a 3.74 ERA this season, including 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his past seven games (six starts). The Braves will have the 30-year-old under contract on a reasonable $6.5 million club option in 2013 before he becomes eligible for free agency.
The Cubs also sent the Braves an unspecified amount of cash to offset a portion of the Maholm and Johnson salaries this season.
On Sunday, Maholm — it’s pronounced Muh-hollum – gave up one run and four hits in 6-2/3 innings against St. Louis to become the first Cubs lefty in the modern era to allow one or no runs in six consecutive starts of at least six innings apiece. He has a 1.238 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), which would be the best in his seven full seasons if he maintains it.
“We were looking for a quality starter that could give us the kind of production that we needed up and down the rotation,” Wren said. “What we’ve got from Ben Sheets has been tremendous, and now adding a guy like Paul Maholm, who’s been so consistent – after the first two starts of the season he’s 9-4 with a 3.04 [ERA] — and having control of him for next year as well, with a club option, and then getting the No. 1 guy on our board as a utility player-pinch hitter…”
Johnson, 35, has hit .302 with a .359 on-base percentage in 75 games (169 at-bats). He has 15 extra-base hits including three triples and three homers, and he’s 13-for-29 (.439) as a pinch-hitter.
The Braves have liked him for some time and tried to trade for Johnson in August 2011.
“To be able to play center and left, and he’s hitting over .400 as a pinch hitter which we sorely need,” Wren said. “He gives us a chance to rest Michael Bourn, gives us a chance to rest Martin Prado. He’s still going to produce and play good defense.”
Braves pinch-hitters rank 15th in the National League in average (.174), last in OBP (.243) and 14th in slugging percentage (.250). Johnson has a .448/.484/.586 slash line in 29 pinch at-bats. He had more than twice as many pinch hits as any other player on the Cubs, whose pinch-hitters rank second in the NL in average (.291), fourth in OBP (.351) and first in slugging (.485).
A solid defender at all outfield positions, Johnson gives the Braves a backup center fielder they’ve lacked and also the right-handed bat off the bench they’ve missed, especially since Matt Diaz was sidelined recently by a thumb injury.
Johnson has a .313 career average and .370 OBP against lefties, and a .333 average and .922 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 81 at-bats against them this season.
The big piece in the deal for the Cubs was Vizcaino, 21, who is recovering from ligament-transplant elbow surgery and expected to be back for spring training. Baseball America rated him as the top relief pitching prospect in baseball last winter, after he posted a 3.06 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 97 innings at three minor-league levels in 2011, and a 4.67 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 17-1/3 innings in his first major league callup.
The Braves got a proven starting pitcher without giving up either of their top starting-pitcher prospects, Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado.
“[That] was important for us,” Wren said. “Obviously Arodys is a good-looking young pitcher. We gave up a quality prospect but to not give up some of the guys that have been mentioned, that was a plus for us. The Cubs are in a different spot than we’re in. They’re looking for a long-range young pitcher that they can have him hold onto for a long time and we’re in a spot where we have the kind of team that can win.
“We wanted to put ourselves in as good a spot as possible to win the division, not just to get in the playoffs.”
The Braves also got a pitcher under team control for next season instead of a rental player such as Cubs ace Ryan Dempster, who is eligible for free agency after the season and who last week blocked a proposed trade to the Braves while he pushed for a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Maholm is making $4.25 million this year in what was his first season with the Cubs after signing as a free agent last winter.
Chapman, 25, was 3-6 with a 3.52 ERA in 40 appearances at Triple-A Gwinnett and had 60 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings. He wasn’t considered a high-level prospect.
Maholm’s 62-79 career record and 4.30 ERA includes 3-1 with a 1.36 ERA in eight starts against the Braves, whom he beat twice this season while allowing one run in 13 innings.
Johnson is a .284 career hitter with a .342 on-base percentage and 62 homers in 3,195 at-bats over 10 seasons with Toronto, the Los Angeles Dodgers and two stints with the Cubs. He, too, has excelled against the Braves, batting .365 (19-for-52) with a .905 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 29 games against them, including a .441 average in 17 games at Turner Field..
The Riverside, Calif., native played 52 games in the outfield before Monday including 32 starts — 15 in center field, 13 in right and four in left.
Johnson hit .309 last season with 22 doubles, five homers and an .816 OPS in 266 plate appearances for the Cubs and signed a one-year, $1.15 million contract. He’s played all three outfield positions throughout his career including 236 games in center.
— Staff Writer Carroll Rogers contributed to this report