My initial thought on the trade was "that's all we got?" LaRoche had a .915 OPS last year, which was good for 10th in the NL, bookended by Jason Bay and David Wright. Would anyone in their right mind trade either of those guys for a reliever, no matter how good that reliever is? My comparison isn't entirely fair because LaRoche is a first baseman, which makes his production less valuable than Wright's at third base, but still. LaRoche was also going to make a little north of $3M this year, so this can't be seen as a salary dump. What Schuerholtz's reasoning has to be is that LaRoche played above his head last year - his minor league numbers did not portend a .561 slugging percentage - and that he's trading him at his peak value. Either that or Schuerholtz was so traumatized by the Braves' inept bullpen last year that he's lost the ability to be rational about the value of a reliever and he's going to overpay to bolster the 'pen. He ought to have been traumatized more by the Braves' dreadful starting pitching last year, but the combination of the ridiculous sums that average pitchers were garnering on the free agent market, combined with the not entirely irrational belief that the pitching should be better this year with Hudson rebounding and Hampton healthy, are reasonable explanations for inaction on that front.
One other factor that surely played into Schuerholtz's assessment: he needs to clear a spot for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and he's doing so now while LaRoche's value is high and other teams don't perceive that the Braves are desperate to deal him.
One of my other initial thoughts was "if we could acquire Rafael Soriano for the incredibly replaceable Horacio Ramirez, then why are we acquiring a similarly-talented reliever for one of our best offensive weapons?" Then I looked at Gonzalez's stats and changed my mind. Gonzalez is not your average good reliever, nor is he a guy whose value is overrated because he closes. He has 177 strikeouts and 68 walks in his 155.3 innings in the majors over the past three years. By all rights, he ought to close for the Braves, relegating Wickman to the 8th and Soriano to the 7th. In truth, he ought to be the guy the Braves call upon in their highest-leverage spots, but I don't know if Bobby Cox is all the way there yet. The bottom line is that the Braves have responded to their financial straitjacket by investing in the bullpen, where they have decided they can get the most value for the fewest dollars. It seems like a reasonable strategy, but it's dependent on first base and second base not becoming giant holes on the lineup such that we never take a lead into the late innings.
I was expecting the Baseball Prospectus to be down on the deal because relievers have limited impact as compared to everyday players, but they're scoring this as a victory for the Braves because of the prospect in the deal - Brent Lillibridge - who sounds like a reasonable facsimile of Rafael Furcal. If he is, then the Braves should not overcommit to a "proven leadoff guy" this year, as they have their solution for 2008 or 2009.