For most of the afternoon Wednesday, it appeared as though the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves were on the verge of finalizing a deal that would have sent Bucs closer Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche. Atlanta's concern over Gonzalez's health was believed to be the only sticking point in the negotiations.
By nightfall, however, the proposed deal appeared to be abandoned altogether. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz reportedly grew frustrated waiting for Pirates GM Dave Littlefield to finalize the trade and decided to move on to other options.
A Pirates source familiar with the negotiations denied that the deal was killed because Pittsburgh was slow to pull the trigger, calling it "a pure fabrication."
On the surface, the much-discussed and reported Gonzalez/LaRoche deal would appear to benefit both clubs.
The Pirates, of course, would get the young, left-handed power bat that they have made their top offseason priority. LaRoche, 27, batted .285 with 30 home runs, 90 RBIs and an OPS of .915 last season with the Braves, and he'd have fit nicely into the middle of the Pittsburgh lineup. Like Gonzalez, LaRoche won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season.
In acquiring Gonzalez, Atlanta would shore up a shaky bullpen that manager Bobby Cox said Wednesday was key to keeping the Braves out of the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
"We scored plenty of runs to win the division," said Cox. "We just didn't hold people late in the game."
Gonzalez, 28, is considered one of the best relief pitchers currently available on the market. The hard-throwing lefty went 3-4 with a 2.17 ERA and converted each of his 24 save opportunities last season while serving as a full-time closer for the first time.
However, Gonzalez was sidelined for the final month of the season due to left elbow tendinitis. Despite getting a clean bill of health from the Pirates medical staff during the last week of September, Gonzalez did not make an appearance after Aug. 24.
Gonzalez, who is planning to travel to Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 for a routine checkup with the Pirates, said Wednesday that he has no lingering health issues
"I got OK'd [to pitch again] right before the year was over. I wanted to have that piece of mind, and I got that piece of mind," said Gonzalez. "I feel great. I'm healthy."
Littlefield, who does not comment on specific transactions until they are finalized, conceded that Gonzalez's health status was an obvious concern for potential partners. According to Littlefield, though, Gonzalez is anything but damaged goods.
"It's natural when someone finishes on the disabled list, there's always going to be some concern," Littlefield said. "But, as we always do, we have provided medical information.
"We're comfortable from the recent medical checkup that he's fine. We don't have those concerns."
Gonzalez's health, however, does not seem to be as big an issue at this point as Schuerholz's impatience with the Pirates. And if Schuerholz is unwilling to return to the bargaining table, the Pirates will have to look elsewhere to fill their needs for a left-handed bat.
One potential backup plan is Washington outfielder Ryan Church. Church, 28, was once a top prospect with the Montreal Expos. He batted .276 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 71 games with Washington last season, and then upset some team officials by refusing to play winter ball.
The Cubs, Royals and Phillies are also reportedly interested in Church, who it is believed could be had for a mid-level prospect.
Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.