Pirates ship Gonzalez to Braves for LaRoche
The Pirates gave their anemic offense a boost Wednesday by hammering out a trade for the left-handed slugger they have been seeking all offseason -- Atlanta Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche -- at the cost of closer Mike Gonzalez.
Reached by phone, both Gonzalez and LaRoche confirmed the trade. The four-player deal -- each club also is giving up a minor-leaguer -- depends on the completion of physicals. It could be officially announced as soon as Friday.
LaRoche, 27, batted .285 with 32 home runs and 90 RBI last season and was seventh in the National League with a .561 slugging percentage. The Pirates, with a lineup heavy with right-handed batters, produced the fewest homers and lowest slugging percentage in the NL last season.
"Sounds like a good challenge," LaRoche said. "They've struggled lately, and they're trying to get it turned around. It will be fun trying to make that happen."
Gonzalez, 28, converted 24 straight save opportunities and went 3-4 with a 2.17 ERA last year, but he was shut down in late August due to tendinitis in his left elbow. He resumed throwing two weeks ago, and yesterday he said his elbow feels fine.
The Braves were desperate for relief help after watching their bullpen blow a league-high 29 saves last season. Gonzalez, a hard-throwing lefty, likely will move into a setup role for Atlanta.
To complete the deal, the Pirates also gave up shortstop Brent Lillibridge, who batted a combined .305 with 13 home runs and 53 stolen bases last season at Single-A Hickory and Lynchburg. He was rated among the top five prospects in the Pirates' farm system.
The second player coming from Atlanta is 21-year-old third baseman Jamie Romak, who hit .247 with 16 homers at Single-A Rome last year.
Romak, a native of London, Ontario, was the Braves' fourth-round draft pick in 2003.
The Braves tried to convert Romak to an outfielder, but his progress was slowed by injuries. He got only 158 at-bats in 2004 and 124 at-bats in 2005. He is a power-hitting prospect, but at times he struggles to make contact.
The Pirates and Braves nearly completed the Gonzalez-LaRoche swap in December during the annual winter meetings, but it fell through. Although the two sides kept in contact, the Pirates mulled other options, including Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Chad Tracy.
"I thought all the (trade) talk was over," said LaRoche, whose wife got the news in a phone call from the Braves yesterday afternoon while he was out repairing fences on his ranch in rural Kansas.
The breakthrough this week came when the Braves dropped their demand that the Pirates include either center fielder Chris Duffy or left-handed starter Paul Maholm in the deal. The Pirates want to keep the nucleus of their pitching staff intact, and they like Duffy as a base-stealing threat atop the lineup until top prospect Andrew McCutchen is ready in 2008 or '09.
The Pirates are deep in the bullpen, where Salomon Torres and Matt Capps are set to step in as the new closer. That gave general manager Dave Littlefield the flexibility to get LaRoche by giving up a reliever.
"It makes a lot of sense," Gonzalez said. "Looking at it from the outside, the bullpen is strong. There are guys who can definitely come in and get the job done. Salomon and Capps are ready to go. It's one of the strongest bullpens in the league."
Even though the trade had been talked about for weeks, there were no indications early yesterday afternoon in the Pirates' clubhouse at PNC Park that it was about to break. Lefty setup man John Grabow, who like Gonzalez is in town to participate in the Pirates' offseason conditioning and checkup program, has kept track of the rumors.
"I've known Gonzo since I got drafted," Grabow said. "He's my throwing partner. He's my boy. I talk to him just about every week during the offseason. I'd hate to see him go, but it's part of the business."
Once LaRoche is officially in the fold, the Pirates must work out his contract terms. When salary arbitration figures were exchanged Tuesday, LaRoche asked for $3.7 million and the Braves offered $2.8 million. LaRoche made $420,000 last year.
Tuesday, Gonzalez signed a one-year contract worth $2.35 million, avoiding arbitration.
The Pirates still are searching for a right-handed pitcher to fill the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation. Shawn Chacon is the incumbent, but Littlefield said last night he continues to explore the dwindling free-agent market.
The Pirates have made an offer to Brian Lawrence, who sat out last season after shoulder surgery, and they also have asked Tomo Ohka's agent about a short-term deal.
"We're still involved in some discussions," Littlefield said.
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