LaRoche is exactly the type of player that Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield targeted as his top offseason priority. He's young (27), packs a punch from the left side of the plate (32 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .915 OPS in 2006) and he won't be eligible for free agency for another three years. LaRoche is also widely regarded as one of the best defensive first baseman in the National League.
"He's a good fit for us overall," said Littlefield. "He's at an age group that fits in well with the players we have developed and traded for. He's got power from the left side that balances our lineup and he's a good defender."
Pirates manager Jim Tracy, who will now have the pleasure of plugging LaRoche into the cleanup spot of the lineup in between NL batting champ Freddy Sanchez and All-Star left fielder Jason Bay, couldn't hide his excitement over adding the new first baseman to the roster.
"This guy can help you win not only with his bat, but also with his glove," said Tracy. "That's special. It's not every day that you can acquire a 27-year-old player who brings all that to the table.
"I've managed against this guy on the other side of the field. He did some damage against us last year and he was also somewhat of a thorn in our side in Los Angeles. He's done nothing but continue to get better and better as an offensive player."
Perhaps some of Tracy's excitement comes from the fact that it looked for a time as though the trade might never come to fruition. A Gonzalez-for-LaRoche exchange was nearly completed in December during the Winter Meetings, but it fell through when the Pirates were unwilling to meet Atlanta's demands for Pittsburgh to add a second player to sweeten the pot. Talks continued between the two teams for the next six weeks before a deal was finally agreed upon in principle on Wednesday, pending physicals for all players.
LaRoche assumed that he would be staying in Atlanta.
"I thought it was a done deal about a month ago. Then it kind of died out and I thought it was over with," LaRoche said. "I had no idea there was still talking going on. I got a call from [Braves GM John] Schuerholz and I thought it was just basic negotiations because we were in the middle of a contract. He told me I was going to Pittsburgh."
Despite the fact that LaRoche is going from an Atlanta team that is a perennial powerhouse to a Pittsburgh franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 1992, he's looking forward to the move.
"That's the great challenge of it. That's going to make it that much more fun," LaRoche said. "I had a chance to meet some of the guys and I talked to Tracy today. It seems great. I like the fact that they are planning on bringing some guys in and turning the team around."
LaRoche believes that it will be his responsibility to bring the winning atmosphere that he experienced in Atlanta with him into the Pirates clubhouse.
"I can't say I am a veteran, because I have only been in the league three years. But I have been lucky enough to play on a team that is known for winning," said LaRoche. "There are a lot of young guys on this team and I'd love to bring some of that over here, aside from what I do on the field and what the numbers I put up look like."
If LaRoche's second-half performance with the Braves last season is any indication of how he'll perform in Pittsburgh, the Pirates could have their most dangerous offensive threat at first base since Willie Stargell. In 66 games after the All-Star break, during which LaRoche began to play regularly against left-handed pitching for the first time in his career, he batted .323 with 19 home runs, 48 RBIs and an eye-popping OPS of 1.042.
LaRoche said that a change in the medication that he takes for his Attention Deficit Disorder helped him to become more focused in the second half.
"I think that it has helped me to stay locked in and not spacing out out there," said LaRoche. "I wish I would have looked into it a few years ago."
By dealing Gonzalez, who converted each of his 24 save opportunities in 2006, the Pirates created a hole at the back end of their bullpen, but it's one that they believe will be filled effectively by Salomon Torres. After Gonzalez was sidelined by left elbow problems late last August, Torres went on to lead the Major Leagues with 12 saves over the final month of the season.
According to Littlefield, the Pirates probably would not have been comfortable trading Gonzalez if Torres hadn't performed so well down the stretch as a closer.
"That was very important," said Littlefield. "It gave us a certain level of confidence, because Torres had some success in the ninth inning.
"That ninth inning is more difficult inning than others when you are ahead in a close game. You have to be mentally tough. You have to have stuff. You have to be able throw strikes. You really don't know what is going to happen until a guy does it and gets out there a few times. Torres did a nice job in his first go around, and now he'll get a lot more opportunities."
Although LaRoche is now officially in the fold, the Pirates still have some negotiating to do to get him under contract. LaRoche is seeking $3.7 million dollars in his first year of arbitration eligibility. The Braves offered $2.8 million before he was traded.
The Pirates haven't yet talked to LaRoche about a new contract, but it is an item that's sure to be near the top of their to-do list.
"It's something we'll certainly take a look at," said Littlefield. "We've been deeply involved in negotiating with a lot of the players."