Atlanta addresses weaknesses at Deadline
Braves' trade for Johnson, Maholm on Monday fills some needs
ATLANTA -- As Braves general manager Frank Wren spoke to media members just after midnight ET on Tuesday, he appeared relaxed and deservedly satisfied. One week after gaining the surprising revelation that Ryan Dempster was balking at the chance to come to Atlanta, Wren completed what he and many others view as a better deal.
Encouraged by what he has seen from his team over the past few weeks, Wren was excited on Monday night when he put the finishing touches on the deal that brought left-handed starting pitcher Paul Maholm and veteran backup outfielder Reed Johnson from the Cubs in exchange for highly-regarded pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman.
"We're not looking for a Wild Card spot," Wren said. "We might end up with a Wild Card spot. But we're trying to win the division. We feel like we have a team that can win the division, and we feel like the division is wide open."
With a six-game winning streak carried into Tuesday night's game against the Marlins, the Braves sat 3 ½ games behind the Nationals in the National League East race. Now as they look toward the season's final two months, they are encouraged by the fact that they have upgraded both their starting rotation and bench.
"It upgrades us for sure," Braves veteran pitcher Tim Hudson said. "The two areas we need to get better at. [Maholm's] having a heck of a year. I think it's really good. He's under contract for next year at a pretty good salary for us. Two thumbs up."
The most significant acquisition in July might prove to be the signing of Ben Sheets, who had been retired for nearly two full calendar years before joining Atlanta's rotation after the All-Star break. But to truly strengthen what has been an inconsistent starting rotation, Wren evaluated a number of available pitchers before acquiring Maholm, who has an affordable $6.5 million option for the 2013 season.
Last week, the Braves thought they had completed a trade that would have sent pitcher Randall Delgado to the Cubs in exchange for Dempster. When Dempster used his right to block the trade, Wren kept his focus on improving his club and he feels like he did so with this deal, which allowed him to take care of two desires -- improve his starting rotation and bench.
"There was really a finite number of guys that fit what we were trying to do [with our rotation]," Wren said. "If you can go out and get someone early, you're better off. Obviously that's what we tried to do [with Dempster]. It didn't work. We're very happy with what happened last night."
By giving up just one of his many coveted pitching prospects, Wren managed to get one of the game's hottest starting pitchers in Maholm, who has posted a 1.02 ERA and limited opponents to a .203 batting average in his past six starts. In addition, he was also able to land Johnson, a player he has been attempting to add to his bench over the past couple of seasons.
Johnson's ability to play each of the three outfield positions will give the Braves a chance to rest Michael Bourn and Martin Prado more frequently down the stretch. In addition, he should be able to strengthen a bench that has produced a .174 batting average and .243 on-base percentage in pinch-hit appearances this year.
Johnson has batted .448 (13-for-29) as a pinch-hitter this year and also shown the ability to hit both right-handed and left-handed pitchers. He has hit .321 (27-for-84) against lefties and .282 (24-for-85) against right-handers.
"Slowly but surely, I think we feel like we're getting a little more consistent with both our offense and pitching," Wren said.
Wren was unable to find a fit as he attempted to acquire a versatile middle reliever during the hours and minutes leading up to Tuesday's deadline. With Tommy Hanson on the disabled list with a lower back strain, Kris Medlen will spend the next two weeks in the starting rotation.
But as long as Hanson bounces back as expected, Medlen should be back in the bullpen for most of the regular season's final six weeks. There is also a chance the Braves could add Peter Moylan to the bullpen before the end of August. Moylan has been working his way back from shoulder surgery.
"We're in good shape," Wren said. "Today we're a little thin. But in another week or so, we could be in real good shape."
When Atlanta approached the Brewers about Zack Greinke, it was apparent that it would have to provide a compensation package that started with Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado or Mike Minor. While Vizcaino is a top prospect, the Braves felt comfortable parting ways with him because of their wealth of young pitching talent.
Vizcaino would likely be in Atlanta's bullpen if he did not undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2012. The 22-year-old right-handed pitcher has provided indications that he has the stuff to quickly become a closer at the Major League level. But stocked with a wealth of young pitching talent, this was the price the Braves had to pay while dealing with tight financial constraints.
This marks the second straight year that Wren satisfied his needs at the Trade Deadline without any financial cost. Like when the Astros took care of Bourn's remaining salary after Atlanta acquired him before last year's Deadline, the Cubs provided enough cash to take care of the money still owed Maholm and Johnson for the remainder of this year.
"I think this team has kind of shown everybody over the past few weeks that they are going to be in the middle of this," Wren said. "They've played really good baseball, and our offense has put together quality performance after quality performance."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.