The Atlanta Braves have agreed to trade first baseman Adam LaRoche and minor league outfielder Jamie Romak to the Pittsburgh Pirates for left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and minor league shortstop Brent Lillibridge.
The trade will be completed once LaRoche passes a physical, which the Pirates require for all new players. LaRoche is traveling to Pittsburgh today from his home in Kansas, so the deal could be announced Friday at the earliest or maybe even Saturday.
Pittsburgh has been after LaRoche since the General Manager’s Meetings in November. The two teams were close to a straight LaRoche-for-Gonzalez deal during the Winter Meetings in December, but the Braves wanted another player when Pittsburgh dragged its feet on the deal.
The two teams maintained contact, with the Braves asking for outfielder Chris Duffy in addition to Gonzalez. The Pirates balked at that proposal but continued to press for LaRoche to fill their need for a power hitter. There have been constant rumors in the Pittsburgh media recently about the Pirates’ interest in adding LaRoche to their lineup.
The Braves, in need of a lefty to compliment Macay McBride in the bullpen, had to make a decision on the deal. If they had passed it’s likely they would have signed one of the few remaining lefty relievers available on the free agent market (Ron Villone or maybe Arthur Lee Rhodes). But instead, General Manager John Schuerholz pulled the trigger on this trade.
LaRoche and the Braves just swapped arbitration figures on Tuesday, with LaRoche asking for $3.7 million and the Braves offering $2.8 million. The Pirates will now have to make an offer to LaRoche. Gonzalez was also eligible for arbitration for the first time and signed with the Pirates earlier this week for $2.3 million to avoid arbitration. So the Braves will save about $1 million dollars with this trade.
HOW ADDING GONZALEZ IMPACTS ATLANTA’S BULLPEN
Before Bob Wickman was acquired from Cleveland on July 20th, the Braves’ bullpen had blown half of the team’s 40 save opportunities. That was a major reason the Braves were five games under .500 and 12 games out of first place at the time of the deal. The bullpen struggles contributed to the Braves missing the playoffs for the first time since 1991.
Atlanta answered the first major question for 2007 bullpen when they re-signed Wickman to a one-year contract back in September, but Schuerholz entered the offseason wanting to continue to strengthen an area that caused so many problems last season.
When the discussions with Pittsburgh were breaking down in December in Orlando, Schuerholz turned to Seattle, who were interested in getting lefty Horacio Ramirez for the rotation. Schuerholz got one piece to his puzzle by getting reliever Rafael Soriano for Ramirez in a deal with the Mariners.
Soriano was arguably the best setup man in the American League in 2006. He made 53 appearances and had a 2.25 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 60 innings pitched. Soriano was hit in the head by a line drive in late August and missed the last month of the season, but the Braves say he’s healthy and ready to go for this year.
Many would have believed Soriano was enough to help set up Wickman, but the possibility of also adding Gonzalez was just too enticing for Schuerholz. Gonzalez was the Pirates’ closer in 2006 and was outstanding. The lefty had no blown saves in his 24 opportunities, along with a 2.17 ERA in his 54 games, and 64 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched.
Gonzalez also missed the entire month of September, but his problem was elbow tendonitis. He had a MRI on his elbow and has been cleared to play this season. Gonzalez resumed a throwing program two weeks ago and has reported no pain. The Braves are confident he’s healthy and will be ready this season.
The Pirates originally drafted Gonzalez in the 30th round of the 1997 draft out of San Jacinto Junior College in Houston, Texas. He spent six and a half seasons in the Pirates’ minor league system, mainly as a starter. On July 22, 2003, Gonzalez was traded to the Red Sox along with Scott Sauerbeck for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez.
But in a strange twist Gonzalez was traded back to the Pirates nine days later with Freddy Sanchez (last season’s NL batting champ) for Lyon, Martinez, and Jeff Suppan. Twelve days later, on August 11th, Gonzalez would make his big league debut for the Pirates. He pitched in 16 games the rest of that 2003 season and posted a 7.56 ERA.
Then in 2004 Gonzalez started in Triple-A with Nashville. He had a 0.90 ERA in 14 games before being called up to Pittsburgh on May 18th, and with the exception of one day back in AAA, Gonzalez was in the big leagues for good. He had a masterful rookie season. Gonzalez was 3-1 with a 1.25 ERA in 25 games for Pittsburgh, with 32 hits allowed in 43.1 innings, only six walks, and 55 strikeouts.
For his exceptional rookie year, Gonzalez was named to the 2004 Topps Major League All-Star Rookie Team. He ranked third among National League relievers in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (11.4) behind Houston’s Brad Lidge (14.9) and the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne (12.4). He also ranked second among all major league relievers in walks allowed per nine innings pitched (1.25) behind Philadelphia’s Billy Wagner (1.12).
Gonzalez was equally impressive in 2005 with three saves and a 2.70 ERA in 51 games. He allowed only 35 hits in 50 innings, with 31 walks and 58 strikeouts. And then this past season Gonzalez became the Pirates’ closer and was 24-for-24 in save opportunities. He has an ERA of 2.37 in his 168 career major league games.
Gonzalez is a hard-throwing left-hander that can hit 96 mph on the radar gun. He also has an effective slider. Gonzalez has been very solid against left-handed batters in his career, limiting them to a .179 batting average (32-for-179) against him.
So now with Gonzalez and Soriano on board the Braves have two effective setup men for Wickman. Gonzalez will also probably get some opportunities to save games, allowing Wickman to not get overworked. Plus, with Gonzalez three years away from free agency, he could replace Wickman whenever the burly right-hander retires or if he were to leave next winter as a free agent.
That trio could represent the best back end of any bullpen in baseball. Plus, with Macay McBride (1.91 ERA in his last 35 games) and Oscar Villarreal (2.63 ERA after the All Star Break) both having strong second halves, that’s five of the seven bullpen spots locked up.
Tyler Yates, a favorite of Bobby Cox, could get one of the last two jobs. Yates is a hard-thrower who had a 2.35 ERA in his final 17 games of the season. So there may be only one bullpen opening in spring training with up to ten other pitchers battling it out. Blaine Boyer and Joey Devine, both healthy now, will have a solid chance, but Chad Paronto and Lance Cormier also figure to be in the hunt.
All of a sudden an area that perhaps cost the team another trip to the playoffs last season could be a strength. The Braves’ bullpen, at least on paper, could be one of the best in baseball. Compare the above relievers to some of the other top bullpens in the game:
METS: Billy Wagner, Scott Schoenweis, Ambiorix Burgos, Guillermo Mota, Pedro Feliciano, and Aaron Heilman
CUBS: Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster, Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, Will Ohman, and Glendon Rusch
PADRES: Trevor Hoffman, Scott Linebrink, Cla Meredith, Scott Cassidy, and Doug Brocail
YANKEES: Mariano Rivera, Kyle Farnsworth, Scott Proctor, Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino, and Chris Britton
ORIOLES: Chris Ray, Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Scott Williamson, and Todd Williams
TIGERS: Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, Jose Mesa, Wilfredo Ledezma, and Jason Grilli
INDIANS: Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Aaron Fultz, Tom Mastny, Roberto Hernandez, Fernando Cabrera, and Rafael Betancourt
TWINS: Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, Juan Rincon, Pat Neshek, and Matt Guerrier
ATHLETICS: Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero, Alan Embree, Chad Gaudin, and Joe Kennedy
ANGELS: Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Justin Speier, Darren Oliver, Hector Carrasco, and Chris Resop
The Braves’ new bullpen, at least on paper, seems to match up well with those other top relief corps. And a stronger bullpen will obviously mean a lot to the starting rotation, which felt pressured last season to go longer than necessary in many games. Now the Braves can make it a six-inning game if the bullpen is strong, much like they did in 2002 when John Smoltz led the fantastic group including Mike Remlinger, Darren Holmes, and Chris Hammond.
Having Gonzalez and Soriano set up Wickman gives the bullpen order. One of the trouble with last year’s arrangement was the lack of order; no reliever clearly knew what his role was in the bullpen. With the closer (Chris Reitsma) struggling, there was a constant audition taking place. But now the Braves know that Wickman and Gonzalez can both close and Soriano and McBride can be the primary set up guys.
Simply having the relievers know what they’re going to do should make a huge difference.
HOW LOSING LAROCHE IMPACTS ATLANTA’S LINEUP
The Braves were second in the National League in runs scored with 843, scoring 5.2 per game. But now that offense has lost both LaRoche and second baseman Marcus Giles, who was non-tendered last month and later signed with San Diego.
Heading into the 2006 season the Braves were waiting for LaRoche to turn the corner. He had hit .278 with 13 home runs and 45 RBI in 324 at bats in his rookie season of 2004, and then slipped to a .259 average in 2005 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 451 at bats.
As usual, LaRoche started off slow last April hitting only .200. His platoon partner for 2006, Brian Jordan, started to show his age a bit in May as he hit only .178 in 45 at bats. And then on June 17th Jordan broke his clavicle, which became a blessing in disguise for LaRoche.
With James Jurries struggling in Richmond, the Braves did not have a right-handed hitting first baseman to bring up to replace Jordan on the roster. So instead, Scott Thorman, another lefty hitter, was brought up. That gave LaRoche the opportunity he needed to prove he was an everyday player.
When LaRoche got to the ballpark on June 17th to face the Boston Red Sox, he was hitting only .247 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in 198 at bats. But after Jordan’s injury LaRoche was handed the full-time job and responded. For the rest of the season, LaRoche hit .310 with 21 home runs, 54 RBI, 23 doubles, and 91 hits in 294 at bats in 83 games.
Overall, LaRoche finished with a .285 batting average, 32 home runs (second best on the team), 90 RBI (fourth best on the team), and 38 doubles (second best on the team) in 492 at bats. His 57 RBI on the road tied him for eighth best in the National League. Adam became just the third Braves first baseman to hit 30+ home runs in a season (Fred McGriff in 1994 and Andres Galarraga in 1998). It was clearly a breakout year for the son of former big league pitcher Dave LaRoche.
LaRoche mostly batted seventh in the Atlanta lineup (61 times), but also hit fifth (40 times) and in five other spots in the order. With Chipper Jones a switch-hitter, LaRoche was the primary left-handed power hitter for the team. Brian McCann, also a lefty hitter, hit 24 home runs (although 18 after the All Star Break) and will be counted on for more this season.
So who will replace LaRoche at first base? The favorite is Scott Thorman, selected twenty-nine rounds ahead of LaRoche in the 2000 draft. He’s also a lefty hitter with tremendous power potential.
Thorman was mainly a pitcher in high school, but the Braves were more impressed with his bat. He was also a third baseman, but a shoulder injury that cost him all of the 2001 season forced the Braves to move him across the diamond to first base. Immediately there were comparisons to former Brave Ryan Klesko, who was also a pitcher in high school but caught the Braves eye more with his bat as well.
Thorman, like Klesko, also had a violent and powerful swing, and it did not take him long to become a solid offensive prospect. After he sat out 2001 with his shoulder trouble, Thorman had a great 2002 campaign in Low-A Macon. Thorman hit .294 with 16 home runs, 82 RBI, and a league-leading 38 doubles in 470 at bats.
The Canadian-born Thorman had his first struggles in 2003 in Myrtle Beach, as he hit only .243 with 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in. The Braves then sent him back to Myrtle Beach to start the 2004 season, and Thorman responded with a .299 average in his first 43 games. He was promoted to Double-A Greenville, but again he struggled a bit hitting only .252. He showed that power, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 51, but the dip in the average forced the Braves to send him back to AA to start the next season.
When the AA affiliate moved to Pearl, Mississippi to start the 2005 season, Thorman made his mark on the Southern League. He again improved when he returned to the level he had ended at the previous year, hitting .305 with 15 home runs, 65 RBI, and 21 doubles in 348 at bats. The Braves then sent him up to Triple-A Richmond, where he hit a respectable .276 with 6 home runs and 27 RBI in just 52 games.
Last season, with LaRoche fully entrenched as Atlanta’s starter at first, the Braves sent Thorman back to Richmond. And again Thorman did even better the second time around in a league. He was hitting .324 (second in the International League) with 15 home runs (also second in the IL) and 44 RBI (tied for fourth) when he was called up to the big leagues on June 18th, the day after Brian Jordan went down with his injury.
Thorman stayed with Atlanta until August 15th, when he was sent back to Triple-A to finish out the final two weeks of the minor league regular season. The Braves then called him back up to finish the season in Atlanta. Overall in the majors, Thorman hit .234 with 5 home runs, 14 RBI, and 11 doubles in 128 at bats.
When rumors first popped out in December that LaRoche might be traded, the Braves expressed confidence that Thorman would be more than adequate as a potential replacement. Along with the comparisons to Klesko, Thorman has also been compared to Indians’ first baseman Travis Hafner, who had a breakout season of his own in 2007.
But do not expect Thorman to immediately replace LaRoche’s 32 home runs. He might eventually hit 32 home runs in a season, but to expect him to do it as a rookie might be unrealistic and unfair. Particularly with Bobby Cox’s penchant for platooning young lefty hitters, Thorman is going to have to prove he can hit lefty pitchers before getting full-time duty, just as LaRoche had to do in his first three years in the majors.
Scouts do, however, believe Thorman can develop into a solid power hitter that might hit 25-35 home runs per year in the big leagues. And seeing how he has improved each of the last three years when returning to the level he finished at the previous season, Thorman also has a history of making the necessary adjustments to become a better hitter.
Defensively, Thorman will not be as strong as LaRoche, who was a Gold Glove-caliber player at first base. But Thorman will be a solid player, making the routine plays and an occasional gold star play. He’ll be solid defensively, but not as spectacular as LaRoche.
The Braves will probably look to bring in a veteran to get some at bats with Thorman, as they did with by keeping Julio Franco around when LaRoche was establishing himself as a big leaguer. Also, for the long-term, the club may now look to get catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia some more reps at first base. ‘Salty’ will probably go back to AA Mississippi, but with Brian McCann fully entrenched behind the plate in Atlanta, the 21-year-old switch-hitter might improve his versatility by playing a little at first base.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER TWO PLAYERS INVOLVED
Also included in the trade are shortstop Brent Lillibridge, heading to the Braves’ organization, and outfielder Jamie Romak, now a Pirate.
The Braves are thrilled with the addition of Lillibridge, who was drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of the University of Washington. He’s a speedy 5-foot-11, 182-pounder out of Everett, Washington that can play the outfield, shortstop, and second base.
Lillibridge was a first-team All-PAC 10 Conference player as a junior in 2005. He hit .330 and led the Huskies in most offensive categories, including doubles (19), triples (4), home runs (tied with 8), RBI (45) and walks (36). Baseball America rated Lillibridge as the second best player in the state of Washington and the 88th best player in the country heading into the 2005 draft.
After the Pirates drafted him, Lillibridge hit .243 (41-for-169) with 4 home runs and 18 RBI in 42 games for Williamsport in the New York-Penn League. But this past season Lillibridge really became a top prospect. He started out with Hickory in the Sally League and hit .299 with 11 home runs, 43 RBI, 18 doubles, 51 walks, and 29 stolen bases in 74 games.
The Pirates then promoted Lillibridge to High-A Lynchburg in the Carolina League and the righty hitter did even better in 54 games. Lillibridge hit .313 with 28 RBI, 10 doubles, 36 walks, and 24 stolen bases in 201 at bats. Overall in 2006, Lillibridge hit .305 with 13 home runs, 71 RBI, 28 doubles, eight triples, and 53 stolen bases in 475 at bats.
Lillibridge has excellent speed and has hit second in the lineup for most of his pro career, but he can also leadoff. He immediately becomes one of the Braves’ fastest prospects, and the Braves are in need of speedsters for the future. He shows impressive pop in his bat with extra base hit potential, along with excellent plate discipline.
Defensively Lillibridge played centerfield in college at Washington. The Pirates have had him at shortstop in his pro career for all but one game, when he suited up and played at second base last year in Hickory. He has solid hands and a strong throwing arm. With questions about the long-term situation at second base, you wonder if Lillibridge could see some action there this season.
Pirates Dugout.com, the Pirates’ website on the Scout.com network, rated Lillibridge as the Pirates’ sixth best prospect, while John Sickels of minorleagueball.com and Baseball Prospectus both named Lillibridge the Pirates’ third best prospect this winter.
An American League scout told The Braves Show Wednesday that Lillibridge is similar to Brian Roberts, the Orioles’ second baseman that was almost acquired for LaRoche and Marcus Giles last month at the winter meetings. Roberts also has excellent speed and can play shortstop and second base. Another scout compared Lillibridge to Ryan Freel for his speed and intensity.
The Braves will likely send Lillibridge to Double-A Mississippi, where he’ll play shortstop next to second baseman J.C. Holt, another speedster. With a solid season in 2007, Lillibridge could knock on the big league door a year from now. His presence further improves the shortstop depth. The Braves also have Tony Pena, Jr., Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, and Chase Fontaine as shortstop prospects.
Along with a need for power at the major league level, the Pirates had a lack of power in the minors as well. So Jamie Romak will now fill that role in Pittsburgh’s system. Romak was also a fourth round pick, as the Braves selected him in the 2003 out of Canada as a third baseman. Scouting Director Roy Clark labeled Romak at the time as a “right-handed version of Scott Thorman.”
Romak was originally a third baseman, but the Braves moved him to the outfield. He battled injuries for a couple of years, hurting his back two weeks after reporting to the Gulf Coast League in 2003 and then breaking his wrist in 2005. Even though he missed the last six weeks of the season, Romak did start to show some of his power in 2005 with seven home runs and 27 RBI in 124 at bats for Danville.
The Braves really hoped Romak would break out in 2006 and at first the signs were not positive. On May 4th of this past season, Romak was hitting only .136 with three home runs and 10 RBI in his first 20 games of the season. So the Braves sent him back down to Orlando and the Extended Spring Training program to try to get him back on track.
The two-week stint in Florida did just that, as after Romak returned he hit .273 in his remaining 88 games with 13 home runs and 58 RBI in 282 at bats. A tough month of June (.196 average) kept his average from being even higher. But after July 1st, Romak hit .283 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI in just 187 at bats.
Romak is still a few years away from being ready for the big leagues, but his power potential does give him a legitimate chance. Defensively he’s got a strong arm in right field and has made great strides. He’ll probably be assigned to the Pirates’ affiliate in the Carolina League this April.
The Braves were able to part with Romak due to good outfield depth in A-ball. They’ll have Jordan Schafer, Ivan Terrezas, and Quentin Davis competing for jobs in Myrtle Beach this spring. Above them in Double-A there will be six players competing for jobs including Brandon Jones, Josh Burrus, Carl Loadenthal, Matt Young, Steve Doetsch, and Matt Esquivel.
Again, the trade is not official. LaRoche must first fly to Pittsburgh (scheduled to leave his home in Kansas Thursday morning) and pass a physical. So the trade may not be announced until Friday afternoon or Saturday at the latest.
Click here to read what the Braves might do next.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.