Trade nearly done after Gonzalez passes physical

Pirates expected to officially acquire LaRoche today

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Mike Gonzalez, the reliever the Pirates have agreed to send to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for first baseman Adam LaRoche, passed his physical yesterday.

That removed the only apparent obstacle to the four-player trade being completed. Formal announcements and news conferences are expected in Pittsburgh and Atlanta this afternoon.

"It's a done deal, man," Gonzalez said last night after returning to his home in Texas. "They checked me out, and everything's OK. As long as LaRoche and the other guys are OK, it's done."

The trade, terms of which were reached Wednesday, cannot be consummated until all players pass physicals. LaRoche and minor-league outfielder Jamie Romak, the players the Pirates received, were in Pittsburgh yesterday for their physicals, while Gonzalez and minor-league shortstop Brent Lillibridge went to Atlanta.

Gonzalez was the only one to enter his physical with a known health concern. He missed the final five weeks of last season to elbow tendinitis, and his offseason throwing activity has consisted of only a few long-toss sessions the past two weeks.

Atlanta's medical staff examined the elbow carefully, Gonzalez said, but did not ask to see him throw.

"They did a lot of poking around, and they said everything was great," he said. "And I knew that. My arm feels great."

If the trade is not announced today, it probably will be because of factors on the Pirates' end. Their extensive physicals include blood tests that often cannot be taken shortly after a flight, and LaRoche did not arrive in Pittsburgh until yesterday afternoon because his flight was delayed in Chicago. Some of his tests might have to be taken today. Still, a postponement of the trade was not anticipated as of late last night.

No Pirates or Braves officials were commenting on any aspect of the trade.

LaRoche told yesterday that he, his wife Jenn and two children -- who live in Kansas -- will miss the Braves.

"To be honest, I think this is harder on the family than it is me," LaRoche said. "I'll suit up and play the game hard wherever I have to. I look forward to going to Pittsburgh and getting the chance to help them turn things around. It's a challenge, and it's going to be fun."

The mood yesterday at PNC Park, where about a dozen of the Pirates' players are working out this week, bordered on ecstatic.

Consider the reaction of two-time All-Star Jason Bay to being told by manager Jim Tracy, in an informal meeting, that he might lose his cleanup spot in the lineup to LaRoche.

"To be honest with you, I don't even like hitting cleanup," Bay said, smiling. "And with the kind of player we're getting, I'm even happier about it. Getting someone like Adam LaRoche ... that's a pretty big piece of the puzzle."

Even once the trade is consummated, questions will persist for the Pirates:

Are they done shopping?

How will the bullpen adjust?

What is the ripple effect on the roster?

The answer to the first question appears to be a resounding no. General manager Dave Littlefield remains involved in discussions regarding another bat and a right-handed starter.

Regarding the hitter: Littlefield had been telling representatives of some free agents that he wanted to acquire his primary power hitter through a trade before pursuing their players. That goal achieved, his next step will be trying to add another bat -- likely for the bench -- and that could come through free agency or a trade in which the value of the departing player is minimal.

According to two sources, the Pirates' next target could be free agent Trot Nixon, 32, who batted .268 with eight home runs and 52 RBIs last season for the Boston Red Sox.

Littlefield also remains in touch with the representatives for at least two free-agent starters, Brian Lawrence and Tomo Ohka.

Lawrence's list has been whittled to four teams, the Pirates among them. The process has been slowed, agent Page Odle said, by all teams seeking financial assurances about Lawrence's health since he missed last season with shoulder surgery. The Seattle Mariners are thought to have the most attractive offer, but it is possible that the Pirates soon will upgrade their offer.

Ohka's agent, Jim Masteralexis, has offers from four teams, but the Pirates are believed to be on the periphery of the talks.

One aspect of any remaining player pursuit is certain: The Pirates still have plenty of money to spend, with roughly $11 million remaining after the LaRoche trade.

It is possible that some of that will be spent on replenishing a bullpen that, otherwise, will be forced to reshuffle without Gonzalez. But that seems unlikely given how strongly management believes in relievers still on the roster.

Salomon Torres will take over as closer, a role he filled admirably in Gonzalez's absence late last season by converting 12 of 13 save opportunities. At age 34, he remains among the game's most durable pitchers, having led Major League Baseball with 94 appearances and posting a 3.28 ERA.

But there are two red flags there: One, this will be Torres' first full-time duty as closer. Two, he traditionally is a slow starter -- much stronger after the All-Star break -- and the Pirates can ill afford a slow start at such a critical position.

The team will face a separate challenge in replacing Torres' extraordinary workload, but that seems more of a sure thing. The Pirates' other three late-inning relievers -- Matt Capps (85 appearances), Damaso Marte (75) and John Grabow (72) -- each stayed quite busy.

"That tells you we can handle it," Grabow said.

The Pirates should have an improved lineup, too, with the addition of LaRoche. His 32 home runs and 90 RBIs last season combine with Bay to make for 67 home runs and 199 RBIs in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots of the order. And it will be the National League batting champion, Freddy Sanchez, at No. 3.

Chris Duffy will remain atop the order, and Jack Wilson will hit second. The plan for the support man behind Bay at No. 6 is to use whoever is hottest out of Xavier Nady or Ronny Paulino. The No. 8 spot will go to Jose Bautista or Jose Castillo, depending on which one wins a starting spot in spring training.

On defense, the lone aftershock of the LaRoche trade is that Nady will play right field exclusively rather than spend some of his time at first base. The only area still undetermined is how Sanchez, Bautista and Castillo will be used. Management is considering shifting Sanchez from third base to second -- a move he would welcome -- while using Bautista or Castillo at third.

Denis Poroy, Associated Press
It's expected that Adam LaRoche will bat fourth in the Pirates' lineup this season, behind Freddy Sanchez and ahead of Jason Bay.
Click photo for larger image.
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