"It's obvious we made a concerted effort from the end of last season when we extended Bob Wickman, our closer, to a contract, made a deal for Rafael Soriano at the Winter Meetings with the Seattle Mariners for Horacio Ramirez, and this last deal, well I don't know if it's the last deal but the most recent deal acquiring Mike Gonzalez which we now feel gives us as strong a bullpen in my view that we've had since I've been here since 1991. We feel real good about that. In addition to those moves addressing the bullpen we agreed to terms with free agent outfielder/first baseman Craig Wilson, who we believe will be a real valuable addition to our club giving us strength and depth in a variety of areas: outfield play, first base play, and a big bat off the bench. He's an outstanding pinch hitter. Earlier than that Chris Woodward, an outstanding multi-faceted utility infielder who was beset by some shoulder problems this past season and battled through that. He had his shoulder repaired this offseason, and we think he's going to be a real asset for us as well. So those are the moves we've made so far this offseason. But principally today it's about finalizing the deal to bring Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge to the Braves."
How important was Brent Lillibridge in getting this deal done?
"I don't know how to quantify how important it was. It was important that we had a quality second player in the deal, although there were those, and you guys have chronicled fairly accurately I'll admit, that we talked about some other players initially. We weren't able to make those deals with those players in it. We kept probing and kept talking and kept working, and when we were able to acquire Brent Lillibridge, a high caliber prospect, very highly regarded – not only by us but by the industry, it brought us to a level of comfort that we were able to make the deal."
How important was it for you to get a third stud for the bullpen? Some would say you already had enough, but is it fair to say you didn't want to have a repeat of last year?
"That's fair to say. I don't know that after what we experienced last year, especially the first half of last year, that you ever feel like you have enough bullpen. We certainly had to endure that last year. Maybe some would regard this as overkill or overload. But again, to reiterate with the extension of Wickman at the end of last year, the addition of Soriano in our deal with Seattle, and now the addition of Mike Gonzalez it's my view that this bullpen, especially the back end of it, is as strong now as it has ever been. We have good reason to believe we won't have to endure what we did, at least in the first half of last year, when we had so many leads that we fritted away with a bullpen that wasn't able to hold them for us. I believe now that we've acquired and assembled as strong a relief pitching staff as we've had here."
When this offseason started you stated you wanted to fix the bullpen, could you have imagined you would have made this much of a significant change?
"We made a commitment to fix the bullpen, and obviously by our actions we lived up to our commitment. It was important that we not have to experience what we experienced last year, not only our team, our organization, our fans, everyone. It was very disappointing. The fact that we lost and didn't get into the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years was bad enough, but to have to endure the way we lost in the first half of the year we didn't want to ever experience again. We made a commitment that we were going to fix the bullpen situation, and we believe that we have. We always shoot high in everything we do. We try to do the very best we can. In every aspect of our team we try to make it as strong with everyone we're competing with, if not stronger, when we can. That's always our view. This is a tough business, and as we know everybody else is doing the same thing to make their team stronger and trying to get ready to compete. We lived through last year not having all the elements in place that were necessary to put a winning team on the field. By strengthening our bullpen, we think we've addressed a lot of that."
Can you talk about the situation at first base now with LaRoche gone and also with replacing Giles?
"Well Thorman will be our first baseman – Scott Thorman, who we believe, and we believe strongly that given the at bats that he should get as the principle first baseman – and Craig Wilson can also play first base, has played first base. I'm sure Bobby will give him plenty of opportunities to do that in certain situations. But Scotty Thorman will be our first baseman. This guy, given his 450, 500 plate appearances or more, whatever he gets or earns, is going to be a real productive offensive player, more than adequate defensive player. Maybe not the silky, smooth type that Adam LaRoche is, but his energy and his aggressiveness and his style of play and his competitive spirit and fire will have an exponential impact on a lot of the players on this team. We continue to add more young players of this ilk to our everyday roster. We think a lot of Scott and what he's going to do for us. And again Craig Wilson will play some at first base as well.
Second base right now is open ended. We're going to give everybody a chance to compete. Kelly Johnson is a young man who we think offensive, with no doubt, can help our ball club and perhaps even serve as the leadoff hitter. He's got to show that he can be our second baseman. We think that he can. Heavens knows that Glenn Hubbard, our very talented first base coach, was apart of the transformation of Marcus Giles, from a guy by Marcus's own admission couldn't even catch a ground ball into one of the finest defensive second basemen in the National League. Kelly's been out here working everyday with Hubby, and we feel real good about that. Martin Prado is a fine young second baseman that played for us at Richmond last year. He came up here with a tear in his hamstring and we never really saw what he could do. And Willy Aybar is a guy that can swing from one side of the diamond to another and can really swing the bat. We're going to be fine at second base we believe."
So there's not a plan then for Thorman to platoon with Wilson?
"Well that'll be up to the manager. I don't suspect that will happen, but that will be entirely up to Bobby, as it always is – how he uses his players. But we believe it's time for another young player to matriculate if you will into everyday responsibility. We believe that he can do the job for us as an everyday player. In fact, Brian Snitker, his manager last year at Triple-A and now our third base coach, when I visited with Brian after we hired him about a lot of things one of the things we talked about was Scott Thorman. His view of him, Brian Snitker's view of Scott Thorman is that he has every bit of the potential to help us in much the same fashion that Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann have. He's a high energy player. He competes. He's productive. He's tough. And he (third base coach Brian Snitker and Thorman's manager parts of the last two years) has a lot of high regard for Scotty's ability and what he can do for us this year."
On Craig Wilson - Was he signed as much for left field as first base?
"Sure. He's a multi-talented, multi-faceted guy and we think we can rely on him to be a productive offensive player and play for us in the outfield and play for us at first base and be a very significant bat on the bench. His pinch-hitting statistics are pretty phenomenal. So it'll be nice to have a guy that you can have that can serve you well in a variety of roles. We think Craig as an outfielder or first baseman or dominant bat off the bench will be real good for us."
Was LaRoche a hard guy to give up in the end?
"Sure he was a hard guy to give up. He had a breakout year this year offensively. He's a silky, smooth defensive first baseman. And had we not had Scott Thorman here we may not have been able to do this, likely could not have been able to do this. Making the commitment that I spoke of earlier to strengthen our pitching staff, especially our bullpen, would require to get somebody like Mike Gonzalez, and if you talk about someone dominant at their position we should not overlook the dominance of Mike Gonzalez and the role that he's filled as a late-inning bullpen guy in the major leagues. We had to give up Adam LaRoche to get this deal done. As difficult as it was, it was obvious something that we were willing to do to get a guy like Mike Gonzalez and to add a guy like Brent Lillibridge to the organization."
Can you talk more about why you pinpointed Mike Gonzalez?
"He gets most all the hitters out. They don't get a lot of hits and get very few runs. His career major league ERA is 2.37. He's struck out 183 guys in 155 innings. He's only given up nine home runs. Any hitter you've talked to who has ever taken a bat to the home plate against him says that he is dominant. Just that. He's an outstanding relief pitcher."
Was there more competition that in years past in going after good relief pitchers?
"I'm sure there were people, I know there were people interested in Soriano and certainly Gonzalez. But we happened to match up very well with the needs of the teams that we made those deals with. In Seattle's case they were looking for young controllable starting pitching and we had Horacio Ramirez that they were interested in that allowed us to acquire a power arm right-handed setup guy. And in the case of the Pirates they made it known that Adam LaRoche was the guy they had in their cross hairs, and we wanted Gonzalez back in any deal that we made. So I wouldn't say it was easy. It's never easy to make deals with players of this caliber and to acquire players of this caliber, but we were able to do it because we matched up so very well with the two clubs that had the players we wanted. I know there were people that had talked about Gonzalez. But I don't think anybody had the asset that they were looking for. I didn't sense that anybody could match up with us in that regard."
Are you satisfied with this roster right now? Do you anticipate going to spring training with this roster?
"It's probably fair to say at this moment I anticipate we'll go to spring training with this bunch. Am I comfortable? Absolutley yes, and most everyone internally that I talk to feels very much the same way. We feel good about the work that we've been able to do and are anxious to get going. That's not to say - I can't tell you that something else may not happen in the next two weeks before we go to spring training. I don't know that. If it happens, great. If we do something that can make us better then great, but if it doesn't we like the team we have and we're ready to go."
Did you guys feel comfortable with the medical reports on Gonzalez's elbow?
"Yes. Yes we did. After he was examined and we received the results of that examination we felt very comfortable. It wasn't just an examination, but a review of all medical documents accumulated over all of last year and conversations with their medical staff by our medical staff, and our training staff with their training staff, conversations with Mike, hands-on examination of Mike by our lead orthopedic doctors. So we were very comfortable in the end. He's been throwing. I don't know since when, but he's been throwing in Pittsburgh in a conditioning throwing program for few days."
You have a surplus of middle infielders now. When you look at the guys you've got, does this change the status of those guys or just it just give you more of an asset to work from?
"Yeah it gives us greater depth in a very critical area of team building - quality middle infielders. You add a guy like Lillibridge with guys like Escobar, and Tony Pena, and Renteria, and the young Elvis Andrus in the system we've got a lot of depth in that area and depth of quality. Adding one more guy like this, the people will either make their way to our club and help us win or people may in some fashion help us make a deal to get a piece we need next. Time will tell. But we like the ability of all those people."
I heard Lillibridge's defense might even be better than his offense, despite the great numbers that he put up offensively.
"Yeah that's what we like about him. However great his offensive numbers have been, people think his defensive capabilities are even greater than that. Plus, he stole 53 bases on top of all that. We like him. We like him a lot as a player. Young guy. He really adds a great deal of depth for us at that middle infield position."
By strengthening the bullpen, how much better do you now feel about the starting rotation?
"I feel our pitching staff in total is now much stronger. You're right there is an inter-relationship between the ability of starters to do their job and Bobby's ability, probably as importantly, to manage what those starters to do in a game knowing that he's got the caliber of relief pitchers - not only like Wickman, and Soriano, and Gonzalez, but some of the guys we had here last year like Villarreal, and Yates, and McBride, Cormier, and Paronto, and others that are going to be fit into roles that they're going to be able to fill very well. Bobby's going to have a lot of manueverability as it relates to how he uses his starters and how far they go in the games and so on and so forth. It does make the entire pitching staff stronger."
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 on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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