By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
ATLANTA — While other NL contenders beefed up for the playoffs, the Atlanta Braves seemed to keep missing out on players who could’ve boosted their hopes.
Turns out, they landed the guy they wanted all along.
Atlanta acquired speedy outfielder Michael Bourn from the Houston Astros on Sunday in a five-player deal, giving the Braves their first true leadoff hitter in at least six years.
The Astros received outfielder Jordan Schafer and three minor league pitchers, but the Braves didn’t give up any of their top pitching prospects.
“We haven’t had that kind of threat in the top of our lineup in a long time,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, one of the numerous Braves slowed by injuries.
Bourn is hitting .303 and leads the majors with 39 stolen bases. He goes from the last-place Astros to a playoff-contending team that has one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, but was downright desperate for offensive help because of various ailments and lackluster performances.
Bourn sure fills a need. The Braves haven’t had a prototypical leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal left after the 2005 season.
“I’m excited,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He makes the defense do things they don’t want to do. Pitchers are going to throw pitches they don’t want to throw.”
The Braves could’ve used Bourn right away. They lost to Florida 3-1 on Sunday despite 13 hits, dropping six games behind Philadelphia in the NL East.
Atlanta leads the wild-card race and has been pursuing an outfielder for weeks, watching as the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence from the Astros and defending World Series champion San Francisco landed Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren said he asked about both Beltran and Pence but felt Bourn was a better fit. Dan Uggla has bounced back from a dismal first half, lessening the need to acquire a right-handed power hitter. The slugging second baseman has a 22-game hitting streak and has reached 20 homers for the sixth year in a row, though he’s still batting in the low .200s.
“We did not go to the mat to get Pence,” Wren said. “If we had gone to the mat for Pence, we would have gotten him.”
As for Beltran, Wren said he wasn’t interested in giving up top prospects for a player in the final year of his contract.
“We could have had Beltran if we’d have given them the player they wanted,” Wren said. “We’re not going to do that for a rental.”
He called Bourn “a perfect fit” on a team that ranked 14th in the NL in stolen bases but has one of the league’s best pitching staffs. Plus, he’s not eligible for free agency until after next season.
The Braves were reluctant to give up more than one of their top pitching prospects: Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Minor or Randall Delgado. Turns out, they didn’t have to surrender any of them to acquire Bourn.
Schafer, once considered Atlanta’s center fielder of the future, showed signs of finally living up to the hype since being recalled from the minors early this season. But he was hitting just .240 with one homer, seven RBIs and a team-high 15 stolen bases before going on the disabled list with an injured finger last week.
The 24-year-old Schafer may go on to have a long, productive career, but the Braves needed someone who could help right away in their pursuit of a second straight playoff appearance.
“On a team that’s poised to win,” Wren said, “we need the finished product.”
All-Star catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Nate McLouth joined Schafer on the DL last week. Jones is still on the active roster but hasn’t started in nearly a week because of a strained quadriceps. Outfielder Jason Heyward has been a major disappointment, hitting just .219 before Sunday.
The Astros also sent an undisclosed amount of cash to the Braves to cover part of Bourn’s salary. He is making $4.4 million this season.
“It’s definitely tough leaving Houston, my hometown,” the outfielder said in a statement released by the Astros. “But I understand the trade. I have the chance to be in a pennant race, so I’m happy about that.”
In addition to Schafer, the Braves parted with right-handers Juan Abreu and Paul Clemens and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. The 26-year-old Abreu was relieving at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he went 4-2 with a 2.25 ERA in 41 games this season. Clemens, 23, and Oberholtzer, 22, were both starters at Double-A Mississippi.
The Astros, struggling with baseball’s worst record, have totally dismantled their team over the past two weeks to build for the future. They received nine minor leaguers, a player to be named and Schafer in the deals for Bourn, Pence and second baseman Jeff Keppinger, who was sent to the Giants.
Houston general manager Ed Wade has come under fire from Astros fans for trading away the team’s top players while getting little immediate return. He pleaded for patience.
“I can understand the level of concern and disbelief that is out there,” he said. “But we’ve got to do the things to point us in the direction where we’re not going to be going through the types of seasons that we’re going through right now and that we’ve gone through in the past.”
Wade said it was vital to build the organization’s depth, and the only way to do that was trading established players for prospects.
“We inherited a pretty barren farm system,” he said, “and we’re paying the price for it right now.”
Schafer plans to take batting practice in a few days, and the Astros believe he’ll be able to come off the DL as scheduled on Aug. 11. He will move right into the Houston lineup as soon as he’s healthy.
“He seems thrilled with the opportunity to be here,” manager Brad Mills said. “His finger’s feeling pretty good. We’ll get some X-rays on it and see how it’s going.”
Even though the Braves held on to their top prospects, Houston was able to land three pitchers who all have a strong chance to make it to the big leagues, according to Mills.
“It’s kind of exciting the guys we got back,” he said. “We’ve got some pretty talented players coming this way.”
The Astros were playing in Milwaukee, but Bourn never made it to Miller Field. Instead, he caught a flight to Atlanta and was set to meet his new team at the airport, joining them on a team charter to Washington for a series that begins Monday.
Wren held a few more talks, gauging the possibility of landing another hitter and perhaps a right-handed reliever. But there were no serious offers before the 4 p.m. EDT deadline to complete non-waiver trades.
As the deadline passed, Wren wasn’t even on the phone in his box behind home plate.
“We were just watching the game,” he said.