Braves shore up bullpen with Gonzalez

Braves get Bucs' Gonzalez for LaRoche

ATLANTA -- When Braves general manager John Schuerholz indicated that he was committed to upgrading his pitching staff, it was believed that he'd find a few arms to solidify a bullpen that brought him and the rest of his organization so much grief this past season.

True to his word, Schuerholz has indeed made changes. In fact, he's been so successful that there's now reason to argue that the Braves will enter the season with the best bullpen in the Majors.

Such a claim can be made when a bullpen consists of two proven closers and another veteran reliever who appears quite capable of immediately filling that role.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Schuerholz added that third closer to the mix in the form of left-hander Mike Gonzalez, who, pending a physical, will come to the Braves in exchange for first baseman Adam LaRoche.

While neither club will comment on the deal until physicals are completed, a source familiar with the negotiations confirmed that the trade, which also involves the exchange of two lower-level Minor Leaguers, will likely be announced on Friday.

At that time, it will be confirmed that Braves are also getting talented young shortstop Brent Lillibridge who hit .305 and registered 53 stolen bases in 66 attempts while playing for both low Class A Hickory and high Class A Lynchburg in 2006. The 23-year-old shortstop's .391 career on-base percentage makes him a potential leadoff hitter for the future.

While it hasn't been confirmed, it's believed the Braves will send Jamie Romak to the Pirates to complete the deal. The 21-year-old outfielder hit .247 with 16 homers in 348 at-bats with Class A Rome this year.

Gonzalez confirmed the pending trade in a telephone conversation with on Wednesday night.

"Of course I'm very pleased to be going to a great team like the Braves," Gonzalez said. "They're a powerhouse. But then again, I have my teammates in Pittsburgh that I've grown fond of. This is really the only organization I know.

"I'm happy for both sides. The Pirates are going to be a good team in the coming year. But now I'm going over there, and I'm ecstatic to get things going with the Braves."

Gonzalez, who converted each of his 24 save opportunities and posted a 2.17 ERA in 54 innings this year, fortifies a bullpen that already includes proven veteran closer Bob Wickman and Rafael Soriano, a highly regarded right-handed reliever who was acquired from the Mariners in December.

Although Gonzalez missed this past September with an ailing left elbow, all indications are that he'll be healthy. He's gotten a clean bill of health after being evaluated by doctors on two separate occasions this offseason.

"We definitely have three legitimate closers on our staff now," starter Tim Hudson said. "I don't think too many people can say that. We've got a couple of power arms in Soriano and Gonzalez, and the grizzly vet in Wickman. It's pretty exciting when you think about it."

The Braves and Pirates began discussing this deal during the General Managers Meetings in November. Talks seemingly cooled over the past few weeks, but they may have picked up on Tuesday, when teams exchanged financial figures with their arbitration-eligible players.

With LaRoche requesting $3.7 million and the Braves offering $2.8 million, it may have been determined that the 27-year-old first baseman would prove to be too expensive. His expected replacement at first base is Scott Thorman, who is expected to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000.

With the one-year contract he signed with the Pirates on Tuesday, Gonzalez will cost the Braves just $2.35 million.

While cutting costs and greatly enhancing their bullpen, the Braves were forced to sacrifice the superb defense and power provided by LaRoche, who hit .285 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs this past season.

With the friendly right-field porch at PNC Park, LaRoche should have no problem proving to be the powerful left-handed bat the Pirates have been looking to acquire. The .655 slugging percentage he recorded after the All-Star break ranked second in the National League, behind only NL MVP Ryan Howard.

"I loved Roachy, and I loved all the great things he did for us this year," Hudson said. "I think he's going to do great things in Pittsburgh. But we addressed a definite need in the bullpen, and I think this definitely strengthens our pitching staff as a whole."

Schuerholz began fortifying his pitching staff in September, when he re-signed Wickman, who converted 18 of the 19 save opportunities he gained after being traded to Atlanta on July 20. The veteran GM's next step came in December with the acquisition of Soriano, who limited opponents to a .204 batting average last year.

Simply with Wickman and Soriano in place, the Braves seemingly had a formidable bullpen. But now with Gonzalez, who has posted a .207 ERA while completing 147 1/3 innings over the past three years, they have every reason to feel real good about any lead they have after the sixth inning.

This should provide more comfort for a potentially strong starting rotation that will be headed by John Smoltz, Hudson and Mike Hampton, who is coming back from ligament-replacement surgery.

Such comfort wasn't provided during the 2006 season, when Atlanta's bullpen blew 29 of its 67 save opportunities. Accounting for 10 of those blown saves were Chris Reitsma, Jorge Sosa and Ken Ray, each of whom is no longer with the club.

Though the bullpen is obviously stronger, the right side of the Braves' infield will be green. Kelly Johnson and Martin Prado are competing to serve as the starting second baseman, and Thorman will be asked to carry a lot of responsibility in what will be his first full Major League season.

Some Braves officials believe that Thorman has the immediate potential to hit more than 20 homers. He showed some signs by hitting 15 home runs and batting .298 in 308 at-bats with Triple-A Richmond this past year. In his six Minor League seasons, he's compiled a .452 slugging percentage.

But after making his Major League debut in mid-June, the 25-year-old encountered some early big-league struggles. In the 128 at-bats he recorded with Atlanta, he hit .234, with five homers.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.