Sometimes, moves just don’t pan out like they ought to. That was the case of the 2012 midseason trade that sent Reed Johnson, along with Paul Maholm, to the Braves. The trade was born out of a move that didn’t happen and ultimately, failed to deliver despite looking like a good deal on paper for Frank Wren. Even when Wren made the right move, it just didn’t seem to work.
But long before that trade, Reed Johnson was born a few weeks before Christmas in 1976. A product of Riverside, California, Johnson was a star in both baseball and soccer in high school. His success there landed him a coveted scholarship opportunity with Cal-State Fullerton, where he was an Academic All-American and posted strong offensive numbers as a catalyst for the Titans’ offense. Undrafted out of high school, Johnson played well enough during his college years to move into the 17th round of the draft, which is where the Blue Jays took him. The ’99 draft wasn’t very good for the Jays. They took Alex Rios with their first round pick and he did develop into a decent player, but only three other players made it to the majors, including Johnson, the second-best player taken that year by Toronto.
After a summer of adjusting to pro ball, Johnson became an overnight prospect in 2000. He spent the year at two different A-ball stops and slashed .298/.420/.479, flashing plus-plus plate discipline and enough power and speed to be a very intriguing prospect. In 2001, this time at Double-A, Johnson became a name to watch. Spending the year with the Tennessee Smokies, Johnson slashed .314/.384/.451. The walk total was a bit of a letdown, but Johnson filled out his baseball card with 29 doubles, four triples, 13 homers, and 42 steals. The Southern League All-Star looked like he was a great late-round find for the Blue Jays and a player that could help them very soon.
After missing most of 2002 with injury, Johnson worked his way into the picture for the big league club in 2003. After opening the year in the minors, Johnson would soon establish himself as a major league performer with a strong summer. In 114 games in the majors, Johnson hit .294 with 10 homers and a .353 on-base percentage. The Jays had opened the year with super sub Frank Catalanotto in right field, but an injury to Shannon Stewart opened left for Catalanotto and allowed Johnson to slide into right field. Bobby Kielty would later join the team, cutting into Johnson’s playing time, but Johnson proved his worth by being the Blue Jays’ most used leadoff hitter.
For the next two years, Johnson was the regular left fielder for the Jays and was unspectacular in his job before a breakout 2006 campaign saw Johnson hit .319/.390/.479 with 12 homers. He led the AL in getting hit by a pitch that season as well. However, his success was short-lived. During an injury-marred 2007 season, he hit just .236 over 79 games. Johnson struggled the next spring as well and with the Jays feeling a roster crush, Toronto surprisingly released Johnson as spring training was nearing its end. The five-year pro would not remain available for long as he landed with the Cubs. A bench bat and platoon player, Johnson was a perfect fit in Chicago. He OPS’d .778 his first season with the Cubbies before slashing .255/.330/.412 during an injury-shortened 2009 season.
Johnson took his talents out west and played for the Dodgers in 2010, which wasn’t much of a trip from the city he was born (Riverside). He struggled with in Los Angeles, though, and lasted just one year before returning to the Cubs in 2011. Like he had never left, his success returned.
That brings us to the 2012 season. The Cubs were in the first year of their rebuild under Theo Epstein. The former Red Sox mastermind had just hired Jed Hoyer to be their General Manager. That season, the Cubs were breaking in young Anthony Rizzo at first base (who, interestingly enough, Hoyer had dealt to the Cubs as the Padres’ GM) and Chicago was trying to add young talent to the mix to build what eventually would become a winner. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves were trying to get back to the playoffs after their 2011 collapse during then-manager Fredi Gonzalez‘s first year at the helm. The Cubs and Braves seemed like a perfect match and a week before the trading deadline, a deal seemed imminent. However, neither Johnson, nor lefthander Paul Maholm, were part of it.
Atlanta was desperate to add a starter to their team that they could count on. With Jair Jurrjens looking like a lost cause, the Braves had turned to Ben Sheets. 25 year-old Tommy Hanson was struggling and Brandon Beachy, also 25, had made just 13 starts before going down with injury. They still had Tim Hudson while Mike Minor was improving, as a team with playoff aspirations, Atlanta did not have the kind of rotation that would be able to compete against the big boys of the National League. Atlanta thought they had found their man in Ryan Dempster. The former closer had been excellent to begin 2012 with a 2.11 ERA through his first 15 starts. While Dempster wasn’t an ace, he was the kind of bulldog starter that gave his manager and general manager a bit more confidence than hoping Sheets could make it through the summer or that Hanson could turn the corner.
Wren and Hoyer found the right mix of players that would make the deal happen. Atlanta would send young Randall Delgado to the Cubs, which would finally separate the four pitchers of the future (Minor, Delgado, Julio Teheran, and Arodys Vizcaino). Another prospect would head to Chicago as well and the Braves would get Dempster. One little problem, though. With over 14 years of experience, including eight full seasons with the Cubs, Dempster qualified as a 10-5 player and could nix any deal. Dempster was open to a trade, but preferred to head out west where he could join his good buddy Ted Lilly and the Dodgers. While Dempster weighed his options – and definitely held out hope for a move to the Dodgers – the Braves grew agitated. All the perimeters were agreed upon and the deal had been leaked out to the public. Wren set a deadline for Dempster, but the right-hander refused to make a decision as he held out hope Los Angeles would step up. Atlanta ultimately took themselves out of the process rather than watch Dempster play the part of the girl with a date to the Prom all lined up, but is still hoping to go with the high school quarterback rather than the dude that actually wants to be with her. Not that I know anything about that…
The Braves still wanted a pitcher, but could not find a Dempster-like arm on the trade market. Instead, they called Hoyer up and asked about Maholm. A long time Pirate, Maholm had joined the Cubs the previous offseason and he was also having a good season. Not a great one like Dempster, but would give the Braves a serviceable left-hand arm for their rotation. Meanwhile, the Braves did find their front-of-the-rotation arm by moving Kris Medlen into the rotation. Coming along for the ride with Maholm and some bags of cash was Johnson. The Braves were stacked in the outfield with rookie Jason Heyward joining Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, but the prospect of adding a right-handed bat like Johnson to pair with Eric Hinske coming off the bench was a great fit. The Braves still broke up their four previously untouchable arms by sending Arodys Vizcaino to the Cubs in the deal along with reliever Jaye Chapman. Vizcaino was on the mend after having Tommy John surgery that spring.
Johnson got into 43 games down the stretch for the Braves and hit .270. He would get fairly regular time with Prado moving all over the field and helped to give the Braves their first real backup option to Bourn during the 2012 season. Both Prado and Bourn would be gone the next winter and would be replaced by Justin and Melvin “B.J” Upton Jr. Johnson, a free agent, liked Atlanta enough to return for a second year. He missed all of August with Achilles tendinitis, but missed even more time because Johnson was not a regular in the mix for the Braves even with the failures of the elder Upton. Instead, Johnson took a back seat to Jordan Schafer, who had returned after being claimed on waivers, and rookie Evan Gattis, who occasionally played left field to get his bat into the lineup more often. Johnson received five fewer plate appearances than Gerald Laird during the 2013 season and Johnson struggled to connect the bat to the ball with any authority.
During his year-and-a-half with the Braves, Johnson hit .256/.308/.332 with one homer, a pinch-hit two-run shot off former Braves farmhand Todd Redmond – then a member of Johnson’s first team, the Jays. Johnson would struggle during a 2014 season spent as a reserve in Miami and continued his tour through the NL East with a stop in Washington next. A torn tendon in his left calf limited him to just 17 games with the Nats. He returned to DC the following year, but failed to make the roster coming out of camp last spring. I do not know if he’s given up the dream of playing baseball again or not, but at 40 years-old, it seems unlikely that he’ll continue his career.
His time with the Braves was short and ultimately uneventful. In the end, like many of Wren’s deals, it just never worked like it should have. Of course, the Braves ended up re-acquiring Arodys Vizcaino from this deal so it cost precious little for Atlanta – even if it wasn’t the deal they wanted.
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