We had heard rumors for so long that I was convinced it would never happen. In this case, persistence paid off, as the Pirates finally completed the trade that brings them slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche and minor league outfielder Jamie Romak from the Braves for lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez and minor league shortstop Brent Lillibridge This is a very good trade for the Pirates, who desperately needed a left-handed power hitter to complement the right-handed hitting Jason Bay in the middle of the order. They’re getting a good, young hitter and solid fielder in the 27-year-old LaRoche (who hit 32 home runs and slugged .561 in a breakout 2006), while giving up something that is extraneous and irrelevant for most sub-.500 teams—a closer.
I’ve heard some Pirate observers criticize the trade, based largely on the contention that LaRoche is no more than a platoon player who struggles badly against left-handed pitching. This criticism is flawed on two counts. First, LaRoche remains a developing young hitter who may still improve against left-handed pitching. It’s not like he’s a thirtysomething slugger who has no chance of solving southpaws. Let’s give him a couple of years before we brand him as another Oscar Gamble or John Lowenstein. (Both were fine players, but were platoon performers rather than everyday players.) Second, and this is the more important point, LaRoche’s current problems against lefties don’t figure to be particular pertinent for the Pirates. After all, what teams in the National League Central have the quantity or caliber of left-handed starting pitching that will shackle LaRoche? The defending champion Cardinals have only Mark Mulder, who won’t be available until at least June or July. The Astros lost Andy Pettitte, leaving them with potentially an all-righty rotation, unless Wandy Rodriguez wins the No. 5 spot in the rotation. The Reds don’t have a certified left-hander in the rotation, unless you count the awful Eric Milton. The Cubs have only Ted Lilly, at least until Rich Hill makes some progress. And the Brewers have traded away one of their left-handers, Doug Davis, leaving them with only Chris Capuano from the left side. Given the scarcity of good left-handed pitching in the division—and throughout the league for that matter—LaRoche’s left-handedness just shouldn’t become that great of an issue.
One other point on LaRoche. Contrary to what has been written at some other blogs, Willie Stargell was not the last All-Star caliber first baseman to play for the Pirates prior to LaRoche’s arrival. That would actually be Jason Thompson, who had a monster season for the Bucs in 1982 (when he slugged .511 and reached base at a .391 clip) and a decent season in 1983 (18 home runs and 99 walks) before falling off the map.
The Pirates are just hoping that LaRoche will have more long-term success than Thompson, who aged very quickly in Pittsburgh after a Hall of Fame start to his career in Detroit.