One morning in mid-January, with the silence of the frigid Kansas prairie surrounding him, 27-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche worked in the barn of his 2,100-acre ranch. The trade rumors that shadowed him for much of the winter had ended, so LaRoche could concentrate on small jobs like welding the gates on his property before reporting to the Braves for his fourth full season in the majors. When his cellphone rang and he heard Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz on the line, LaRoche thought his boss was calling to chat about his 2007 contract. Instead, after a minute of small talk, Schuerholz told him, "You're going to the Pirates." The Braves had dealt LaRoche for lefthanded closer Mike Gonzalez.
As the son of former lefty reliever Dave LaRoche, who pitched for five teams in a 14-year major league career, Adam always wondered how it would feel to hear the words You've been traded. He admits that his first thoughts included what a bad team he was going to, but on the whole he wasn't disturbed. "I told my dad, and he had great perspective on it," says LaRoche. "He said, 'You've been in the big guys' shadow in Atlanta for a few years, and now you get to reverse that role. You'll help the young guys. You're ready. This is perfect.' And I knew he was right."
For years the cash-strapped Pirates waited until free agency had run its course before addressing their power needs, signing one-year pluggers who then would put up lackluster numbers (Derek Bell, for example, in 2001 and Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz last year). But in LaRoche they acquired lefthanded power (32 home runs and a .561 slugging percentage in '06) they hope to keep around. "We traded a good closer for him, and it's risky business," says G.M. Dave Littlefield. "But we're hoping he's a very good hitter and good fielder just entering his prime."
Manager Jim Tracy is considering batting Jason Bay fourth and LaRoche fifth, instead of 3-4, because he believes centerfielder Chris Duffy has the potential to steal 50 bases in the leadoff spot and he wants defending National League batting champ Freddy Sanchez hitting third. (Shortstop Jack Wilson is expected to bat in the number 2 slot but given his career .306 on-base percentage, he's a good candidate to eventually be dropped in the order.) "There's a genuine excitement about our offense, and we're going to be together for a few years," says Bay, who had a total of 67 homers, 210 RBIs and 211 runs over the last two seasons. "Adam's the key. It's not like we had someone giving us 25 homers and 80 RBIs. We're almost starting from zero with him."
A by-product of the deal, the Pirates discovered in spring training, is the clubhouse influence of a guy who's been with a winner. "I really want to bring that [winning mentality]," LaRoche says. "A few guys have already asked me, 'What's the difference with a winning team?' I think it's pretty simple. In Atlanta we thought we were going to win every day. That's different from hoping you'll win. I want to be the kind of influence here that Chipper Jones was on me when I got to Atlanta."
This will likely be another long year at PNC Park because Pittsburgh doesn't have the pitching to contend. Projected ace Zach Duke allowed 40 more hits than innings pitched last year and finished 10-15; the rest of the rotation is a mess. The addition of LaRoche means the Pirates at least have the offensive firepower now to put up eight runs from time to time, and the Pirates will have to win a bunch of 8-6 games to be playing meaningful games after the All Star break. -- Peter King
Issue date: March 26, 2007