The Braves needed a reliever. The Pirates needed a power hitter. And on January 19th of this year, the two teams found a match.
Mike Gonzalez was traded to Atlanta, while Adam LaRoche went to Pittsburgh. Two minor leaguers were also included. It was one of the best pure baseball trades of the winter. It wasn't made for financial reasons, but instead to try and help both clubs.
The Braves did not want to trade LaRoche, but at the Winter Meetings in Decemeber they were floored by the interest in him. The Angels and Orioles also called, but the Pirates were the most aggressive. The deal was almost finalized that week in Orlando, but the talks broke down.
Pittsburgh remained interested in LaRoche, and the Braves had to finally make a decision. Would Scott Thorman, a young and unproven first baseman, adequately replace LaRoche if he were traded? That had to be answered first before the deal was made.
There was no doubt another reliever would help the Atlanta bullpen. The Braves were bitten last year by a horrific group of relievers. It was one nightmare after another, and that's why GM John Schuerholz was tempted to add Gonzalez. The lefty had been perfect in 24 save opportunities last season for the Pirates.
Even though Bob Wickman was coming back, and even though Rafael Soriano was acquired during the winter meetings, the thought of having a three-headed monster in the bullpen was just too enticing. Even at the loss of LaRoche, a favorite on and off the field for the Braves, getting Gonzalez was just too good to pass up.
And so far, we're seeing exactly why. 'Gonzo' has been outstanding, posting a 1.17 ERA in 16 games with one save and five holds. In April Braves' Manager Bobby Cox used Gonzalez a lot in the seventh inning, and Gonzalez admitted that was a bit uncomfortable.
This guy is just better when the game is on the line. And since the MRI showed there was nothing wrong with his elbow, which had been barking just a bit, Gonzalez has been almost perfect. He has not allowed a run in his last twelve appearances, and with Wickman out Gonzalez has paired with Soriano to make the end of the games pretty automatic.
Gonzalez and Soriano have fixed the Braves' bullpen. No longer do the Braves have to worry about blowing a lead or having no chance to hold a lead if they bounce back from being behind. Now this club is fully confident that Gonzalez is going to shut the competition down.
LaRoche has struggled for Pittsburgh, but remember that it's still early and he's usually pretty horrible early in the season. That's just LaRoche. He always starts off slow. Going into tonight's game Adam is hitting only .168 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 113 at bats.
But there's little worry. Adam will come around. He usually hits better as the season rolls along, so the Pirates remain optimistic he'll be that big cog in their lineup.
And the Braves' offense has not really suffered from LaRoche being gone. The Braves are fourth in the National League in home runs with 38 (even though they have not had a homer in the last eight games) and fifth in runs scored (168).
LaRoche's replacement, Scott Thorman, is doing okay. Not great, but just okay. He's hitting .240 with three home runs and 13 RBI in 75 at bats. Thorman is stuck in a platoon with Craig Wilson, who has been even less effective. But like LaRoche, Thorman is simply waiting for the day when he'll be out of the platoon situation. Then we'll probably see why the Braves were confident enough in Thorman's ability to trade LaRoche.
There were two other players involved in this trade. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge is at Double-A for the Braves. He's hitting .269 with two home runs, nine RBI, eight stolen bases, and a .367 on base percentage. Lillibridge does have 40 strikeouts, but the Braves are very happy with his play so far this season.
And Jamie Romak is off to a very good start in the Pirates' farm system. He started the season at Hickory in Low-A, but he's now in Lynchburg in the Carolina League. The outfielder is hitting .268 overall with six home runs and 18 RBI in 97 at bats. He's quickly becoming what the Pirates needed, a power hitting outfield prospect.
Right now, the Braves probably have the edge in this deal. Gonzalez has made the Braves' bullpen one of the best in the league. Atlanta's pen is 10-2 this season, which points straight to all the come from behind wins and the pen's ability to hold the leads. Plus, the Braves are in first place in the National League East with a 22-12 record.
And the main reason Atlanta did not make the playoffs last season was the bullpen. It was definitely broke, and the addition of Gonzalez has helped fix it.
Pittsburgh is 15-18, 8.5 games back of the red hot Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division. And while LaRoche is struggling now, they know he always starts out slow. So they are hopeful the trade will be a bit more even by the time the season is over.
So what do you think? Would you still make this trade? Do you think Gonzalez has been worth LaRoche?
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, 105.5 the Fan in Macon, and the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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