Braves finalize deal for Bucs' Gonzalez
Atlanta also gets talented Minor League shortstop Lillibridge
ATLANTA -- With the necessary medical evaluations out of the way, Braves general manager John Schuerholz was finally able to publicly express the excitement created by the fact that he's quickly transformed a struggling bullpen into one that could prove to be the finest Atlanta has ever seen.
Since agreeing on Wednesday to trade Adam LaRoche and Minor Leaguer Jamie Romak to the Pirates in exchange for highly coveted left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and highly regarded prospect Brent Lillibridge, Schuerholz has had plenty of reason to smile.
But it wasn't until the deal became official with the completion of physicals on Friday that Schuerholz was able to truly express the optimistic excitement created by the acquisition of Gonzalez, who enhances a bullpen that already included veteran closer Bob Wickman and Rafael Soriano.
"It's my view that this bullpen, especially the back end of it, is as strong now as it's ever been," Schuerholz said. "We have good reason to believe we won't have to endure what we did during the first half of last year. We believe now that we've acquired and assembled as strong a relief pitching staff as we've ever had."
It certainly doesn't take long to remember the worst bullpen of Schuerholz's tenure. That distinction belongs to last year's group, which blew 16 of its first 35 save opportunities and never truly showed any sense of stability until July 20, when Wickman came from Cleveland to fill the role of a reliable closer.
But obviously having Wickman in place wasn't enough for Schuerholz. With the offseason acquisitions of Soriano and Gonzalez, who converted each of his 24 save opportunities last year, he has filled his bullpen with three capable closers.
"I don't know after what we experienced last year, especially the first half of the year, that you ever feel that you have enough bullpen," said Schuerholz in response to those who may feel that he has put too much of an emphasis on his relief corps.
Since November's General Managers Meetings, Schuerholz had been talking to Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, who wanted LaRoche to become the powerful left-handed bat his team needed. All along, the Braves were asking for Gonzalez and hoping that Littlefield would also include either center fielder Chris Duffy or second baseman Jose Castillo.
All attempts to get Duffy or Castillo didn't work, and it wasn't until Lillibridge was offered that this deal truly neared its completion. While playing for Class A Hickory and High Class A Lynchburg in 2006, the 23-year-old shortstop combined to hit .305 with 13 homers and 53 stolen bases (66 attempts).
Braves media relations director Brad Hainje determined that Lillibridge was the only Minor Leaguer in '06 to hit at least .300 with 10 home runs, 50 RBIs, 50 stolen bases and a .400 on-base percentage.
"However great his offensive numbers have been, people think his defensive capabilities might even be better than that," said Schuerholz of Lillibridge, who will likely begin this season at Double-A Mississippi.
While Lillibridge could one day be Atlanta's leadoff hitter, Gonzalez was obviously the centerpiece of this deal for the Braves. Along with being perfect with each of his 24 save opportunities last season, the 28-year-old left-hander limited opponents to a .213 batting average and posted a 2.17 ERA in his 54 innings.
"Any hitter you talk to who has ever taken a bat to home plate against him says he is dominant," Schuerholz said. "He is what he is. He's an outstanding relief pitcher."
With all three in place, Braves manager Bobby Cox should be able to keep his top relief arms fresh and at the same time, have the confidence of pulling his starters earlier than he definitely would have with last year's bullpen.
"Bobby is going to have a lot of maneuverability as to how he uses his starters and how deep they go into the game," Schuerholz said. "It does make the entire pitching staff stronger."
When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, they had a team that ranked 13th in the National League in batting average and first in ERA. Schuerholz's offseason focus has been on building a pitching staff, similar to the ones that helped the Braves win a record 14 consecutive division titles.
This past season, the Braves ranked second in the NL in runs scored and 10th in ERA. Even with all of the offense, the Braves never seriously challenged for a postseason berth at any time during the season's final six weeks.
Thus with the emphasis back on pitching, it was easier for Schuerholz to make sense of trading LaRoche, who hit .285 with a career-best 32 homers and .561 slugging percentage this year. His .655 slugging percentage after the All-Star break ranked second in the NL to MVP Ryan Howard.
"Sure [LaRoche] was a hard guy to give up," Schuerholz said. "He had a breakout year this year offensively. He's a silky smooth defensive first baseman. Had we not had Scott Thorman here, we likely wouldn't have been able to do this."
Thorman assumes LaRoche's role as the club's regular first baseman. Craig Wilson, who was signed as a free agent, will likely spend most of his time in left field and could occasionally be used as a right-handed-hitting first baseman.
While Thorman struggled to get comfortable in limited action at the Major League level last year, he's shown power while producing a .452 slugging percentage in the Minors. He is a high-energy young player who is highly regarded by the Braves.
"He's going to be a real productive offensive player and more than adequate defensive player -- maybe not the silky smooth type that Adam LaRoche is," Schuerholz said. "His energy, his aggressiveness, style of play and competitive spirit will have an exponential impact on a lot of players on our team."
Now with his bullpen significantly enhanced, Schuerholz could make yet another move. But at the same time, it appears he'd confidently head into Spring Training with the roster as it currently stands.
"It's probably fair to say at this moment, I anticipate we'll go to Spring Training with this bunch," Schuerholz said. "Am I comfortable? Absolutely, yes. Most everyone internally I've talked to feels the same way. We feel good about that work that we've done and are anxious to get going."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.