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Trade Retrospective: Cubs trade Paul Maholm to the Braves

The Braves paid a high price for some rotation help.

Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs

For the third straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

Right before the 2012 trade deadline, the Cubs traded Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta. In return, the Braves sent back two prospects in Arodys Vizcaíno and Jaye Chapman.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

Less than a year into his tenure with the Cubs, Theo Epstein was very busy with a difficult rebuild. The North-siders were tanking hard and trading away any players of value. As a back of the rotation starter, Paul Maholm did not exactly scream “value,” but he did have some, and Epstein was smart enough to maximize the return.

It might be confusing to hear that the Cubs had actually signed Maholm as a free agent during the previous offseason. Why would a tanking team do that? Well, a tanking organization still needs to field a team, and Maholm was signed for dirt cheap, meaning any upside could potentially return decent younger players in a trade. The contract was worth only $4.2 million for 2012 with a $6.5 million team option for 2013. Though he struggled in 2010, he bounced back nicely in 2011 with a 3.99 RA9 and 2.5 bWAR. Maholm’s problem was always that he could not strike anybody out, but his high groundball rates helped compensate.

Maholm’s contract was a great deal for a durable, back-end starter, and as Chicago had likely hoped, It also provided great trade bait. Either trade him to further the Cubs rebuild, or decline his team option and lose only $4.2 million on the gamble.

The Braves were at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Cubs. They were 58-44 and 3.5 games behind the first place Nationals. If they could not muster enough wins to take the division, they could at least compete for a Wild Card spot. Their starting rotation was in good shape, but with the NL playoff race so tight Atlanta needed to take any opportunity they could to improve.

Losing Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery the month before was a big blow. He had an excellent 2.67 RA9 before his injury, and Jair Jurrjens’s had a 6.47 RA9 in his place.

Jurrjens pitched well the prior year, but was barely above replacement level in 2010. The playoff race allowed little room for error, so the Braves could not afford to see if Jurrjens would regress to the mean. Kris Medlen was not ready to be put back in the rotation. Ben Sheets was signed earlier in the month, and he had been excellent in three starts, but given his extensive injury history it would be unwise to rely on him to be healthy for the rest of the season.

The Braves also needed some outfield depth. Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, and Martín Prado were having excellent seasons, but the team knew they would benefit from additional depth. A good fourth outfielder, preferably a right-handed bat who could platoon with Bourn or Heyward against tough lefties, made the most sense, and Reed Johnson fit that description nicely.

A back-end starter and a fourth outfielder might not sound like much, but prices increase at the trade deadline, and the Braves appeared eager for any help at all. Epstein was able to leverage that beautifully.

Vizcaíno was a prospect with a high ceiling but a low floor. He had the potential to be a top of the rotation starter, but his injury history and recent Tommy John Surgery posed some serious risk. Chapman was an organizational arm whose ceiling was seen as having the ceiling of a middle reliever.

Reasonable people can disagree as to how high the price was that the Braves paid. It all depends on how much the scout you ask believed in Vizcaíno’s chances to reach his highest potential. That being said, even the most pessimistic outlook on Vizcaíno still sees this trade as an overpay for the Braves.

As for the Cubs, trading away a couple of players who were not going to be part of the team’s future was a no-brainer. Getting a player with Vizcaíno’s upside was a huge win. If it did not pan out, the risk they assumed was minimal anyway.

The Results

Maholm continued to pitch well for the Braves. He had a 3.81 RA9, but that was worth only half a win because of the Braves’ strong defense. That was probably a big upgrade over what Jurrjens would have given them anyway. Johnson, on the other hand, performed poorly. He hit .270/.305/.320 for the rest of the year, which was a sub-replacement level performance.

The Braves ended the season with an excellent 94-68 record. Unfortunately, it was not enough to win the division, as the Nationals took the NL East by four games. Atlanta did manage to win home-field in the Wild Card game against the Cardinals, but their postseason was short-lived, as they lost to the St. Louis 6-3.

Bringing back Maholm for $6.5 million was an easy decision for the Braves. His run average rose by over a run to a 4.82 RA9, which is a number that could not crack replacement level. The Braves let him go in free agency after the 2013 season.

Maholm then signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers that became a $1.5 million deal when he made the major league roster. He continued to struggle as a starter, and was ultimately demoted to the bullpen. He was even worse there with a 5.00 RA9. Sadly, he tore his ACL on August 1, 2014 and missed the rest of the season. It was his last game ever as a pro. Despite trying to make a comeback the following season with the Reds, he was cut before the 2015 season started.

The Braves brought back Johnson after the 2012 season on a one-year deal worth $1.6 million with a team option for the same amount. He continued to hit poorly, with a line of .244/.311/.341. An 85 wRC+ does not cut it even for a backup outfielder, so the Braves declined his second-year option. He signed with the Marlins in 2014, but his hitting got even worse. The Nationals gave him one last chance in 2015, but he appeared to lose all ability to hit forcing the Nats to cut him before the 2016 season.

As mentioned before, Vizcaíno missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, but he also missed all of 2013 due to arthroscopic surgery in his elbow. He made five relief appearances with the Cubs in 2014. He was wild and ineffective in those appearances, so the Cubs traded him back to the Braves in the offseason. The Braves sent Tommy La Stella to Chicago and received $832,000 in international bonus pool money in addition to Vizcaíno. He could not have gotten off to a worse start in his Braves reunion, because he got suspended 80 games for testing positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol.*

*Speaking as a chemist, I can’t understand why a baseball player would take that particular steroid. It has serious side effects and is easily detectable for weeks or even months after use.

Vizcaíno was outstanding when he finally made the majors in 2015. He had a 1.87 RA9 and a 26.6 K% over 36 appearances. He regressed heavily in 2016 with a 5.82 RA9, but bounced back with a 2.98 RA9 over 62 appearances in 2017. That combined with a 27.2 K% made him quite a good reliever, so he and the Braves settled on a $3.4 million salary for 2018.

Chapman made his major league debut later in 2012 as a September call-up. He made 14 appearances, and on the surface it looks like he was successful with a 3.75 RA9. But he walked 20 percent of the batters he faced. He has not made a major league appearance since. He was cut after the 2013 season. He spent 2014 in the Atlantic League, and then he spent the subsequent three years in affiliated ball bouncing between the Brewers, Rays, and Rangers. The Rangers released him in July 2017.

Braves Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Paul Maholm 1 0.4 $8.5
Reed Johnson 0 -0.5 $0.5
Total 1 -0.1 $9.0
Baseball Reference, Spotrac

Johnson’s 2013 season is omitted in the table because that was acquired through free agency. The ceiling was not high given the talent, but the price paid makes this result pretty disappointing.

Cubs Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Arodys Vizcaíno 6 0 $0.8
Jaye Chapman 6 -0.1 $0.1
Total 12 -0.1 $0.9
Baseball Reference, Spotrac

The Cubs were obviously hoping for a lot more from Vizcaíno. However, it cost them nobody that they missed, so the loss was not impactful. The best thing they got from Vizcaíno was Tommy La Stella. The Braves are happy to have him back, though.

The Braves made a serious gamble and got burned. The Cubs did an excellent job in making the most of the deal, but did not get the impactful starting pitcher they were looking for. As they say, prospects will break your heart.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.