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Braves trade LaRoche for closer Gonzalez

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Posted: January 17, 2007 9:20 p.m.
Updated: February 1, 2007 5:00 a.m.

    PITTSBURGH — After two months of trying, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally landed a deal for Atlanta power hitter Adam LaRoche on Wednesday when they agreed to acquire the first baseman for left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez.
    The trade also involves two minor leaguers and will be announced after physicals are completed, according to a baseball official familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity because the deal was still being finalized.
    The Braves also get shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge, while the Pirates will receive outfielder Jamie Romak. Both played in Class-A last season.
    The Pirates, who hit an NL-low 141 homers during a 95-loss season last year, have been desperate to add a left-handed power bat to take advantage of PNC Park’s short right-field deck. They targeted LaRoche weeks ago, but the Braves previously sought both Gonzalez and one of the Pirates’ young starting pitchers.
    The 27-year-old LaRoche hit .285 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs last season and was seventh in the NL with a .561 slugging percentage. He is expected to be a major addition to a Pirates lineup that, except for Jason Bay (35 homers), had no player with more than 16 homers.
    Gonzalez, who turns 29 in May, should substantially improve a Braves bullpen that blew 29 save chances last season. He was 3-4 with a 2.17 ERA last year and was 24-for-24 in save conversions until missing the final five weeks of the season with a sore left elbow.
    Gonzalez has pitched well in all three full seasons in the majors, though he was primarily a left-handed specialist until last year. He had a 1.25 ERA in 47 games in 2004 and a 2.70 ERA in 51 games in 2005.
    The Braves made upgrading their bullpen an offseason priority, also adding setup man Rafael Soriano (2.25 ERA in 53 games) in a trade with Seattle for starting pitcher Horacio Ramirez.
    Gonzalez probably won’t be the closer in Atlanta, at least not immediately. Bob Wickman, who had 18 saves and a 1.04 ERA in 28 games after being acquired from Cleveland in July, re-signed with the Braves and is expected to be their opening-day closer.
    The Braves project Gonzalez taking over for Wickman in 2008.
    The trade means Atlanta will have a new right side of the infield. The Braves previously cut ties with second baseman Marcus Giles, declining to offer a contract to a player who had 11 homers and 60 RBIs last season.
    Scott Thorman (.234, five homers, 14 RBIs) is expected to take over at first base for LaRoche. Martin Prado, Kelly Johnson and Willy Aybar will contend at second.
    The Pirates’ willingness to deal a hard-throwing reliever with his prime seasons apparently ahead of him reflects the confidence they have in a bullpen that is unusually deep for a losing team.
    Right-hander Salomon Torres had 12 saves, most of them after Gonzalez was hurt, while pitching in a major league-high 94 games. Right-hander Matt Capps (3.79 ERA in 85 games) and left-handers John Grabow (4.13 ERA in 72 games) and Damaso Marte (3.70 ERA in 75 games) also were effective most of the season.
    The trade likely will be welcomed by Pirates players, including shortstop Jack Wilson, who urged general manager Dave Littlefield to add a power bat. The Pirates also discussed a trade for Arizona infielder Chad Tracy, but felt LaRoche better fit their needs.
    The Braves already know what Gonzalez will cost them — he bypassed arbitration by agreeing Tuesday to a $2.35 million, one-year contract. LaRoche asked for a raise from $420,000 to $3.7 million and has been offered $2.8 million.
    The teams were close to completing the trade during the winter meetings early last month, but it fell through because of the Braves’ demand for a player besides LaRoche.
    The 23-year-old Lillibridge hit .313 in 54 games at Class-A Lynchburg and .299 in 74 games at Class-A Hickory. He was considered one of the best fielders in the Pirates’ farm system.
    Romak, 21, had a .247 average, 16 homers and 68 RBIs in 108 games at Class-A Rome.

    AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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