Ideally, the team would sign a superstar free agent. Or trade for one.
The A's don't typically make major splashes via trades, unless of course it's shipping their own starters away for prospects two or three years away from the majors. Though trades for big-ticket players have happened (see Holliday, Matt). And that's exactly what they need to do in order to take the next step. The St. Louis Cardinals made upgrades; so did the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers.
Near-contenders are upgrading weaknesses. The A's must do the same—at these positions.
Yes, it is a weakness still. Punto is not an upgrade.
In 130 games, Eric Sogard hit .266. He held a .985 fielding percentage. Punto hit .255 last year and maintained a .989 fielding percentage at second base.
It's clear the Athletics intend to platoon again. Sogard, Punto and Alberto Callaspo—none of them are full-time starters. Sogard hit well enough against right-handed pitchers. Punto hits best against lefties, but together, Sogard and Punto won't take Oakland any further than Sogard and Callaspo did in 2012.
But Brandon Phillips could.
Now, there's conflicting reports surrounding Phillips' name. Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted Cincinnati's intentions:
The #Reds decided a month ago that they will shop Brandon Phillips this winter w all intents to trade him— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) October 18, 2013
But there should be.
Phillips is an immediate upgrade over all three guys on the current roster. His average has gone down the last two seasons, but last year he knocked in 103 RBI and 18 home runs. He also won his fourth Gold Glove award. Just check out the video of his 2013 highlights to the right. Furthermore, the A's have a decently deep farm system and could make a move to compete now.
The Reds would definitely have to send cash though.
Other alternatives: Gordon Beckham (CHW), Dan Uggla (ATL)
All-Star closer Grant Balfour should earn a sizable contract. Jane Lee of MLB.com recently wrote "should [Balfour] depart as expected, youngsters Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle are the clear in-house options to take over as closer."
Sure, Doolittle and Cook can easily slide from mid-relief and setup, respectively, to setup man and closer. But the bullpen was a bright spot in 2012. So Oakland must fill the void as effectively as possible.
A perfect match may exist between the A's and Kansas City Royals.
The Royals apparently have interest in Brett Anderson, per Buster Olney of ESPN:
One of the possible targets the Royals have talked about internally, in filling a spot in their rotation, is Oakland's Brett* Anderson.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 20, 2013
And Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star claims the Royals "privately acknowledge a willingness to trade any of their relievers, including All-Star closer Greg Holland, for the proper return."
Holland is an All-Star closer like Balfour. Trading for him would keep Doolittle and Cook in the roles they know and thrive in. And Holland is cheaper than Balfour. Younger too.
Other alternatives: Aaron Crow (KC)
The Debatables—Right Field, DH
There are a few other positions that could be upgraded, but they aren't necessarily priorities like the bullpen and second base are.
For instance, there's right field. You can say Josh Reddick's 2012 season is the real thing and '13 was a fluke. Or you could say the exact opposite. If you believe 2013 is more accurate, then Reddick's defense isn't enough to keep him in the lineup.
Designated hitter is another.
Seth Smith hit .253 last season with just eight home runs and 40 RBI. Chris Young produced similar numbers and fans couldn't wait to see him go. A trade for, say, Kansas City's Billy Butler could add some real power to the lineup and officially push Smith in the outfield as the fourth option.
Both catching and starting pitching could technically be upgraded as well. But that would mean the A's are throwing in the towel and giving up on very young, cheap players.
A Look Ahead
If Oakland's lineup remains exactly as it is, they'll compete, but they might have a harder time doing so than in 2012 and 2013. The Rangers and Angels will push them for the AL West championship. Competition for a wild-card spot will be as tough as it was last season too, possibly tougher.
An acquisition for a reliever alone won't do it.
The A's must do everything they can to replace Balfour with high-quality talent. Then they have to do something about second base. Punto won't be the difference maker. (For those saying second will be crowded, acquiring another player will make Callaspo and Sogard expendable.)
Strengthening second base and the bullpen could push Oakland into an ALCS. Going a step further at the right field or DH positions could easily make a World Series berth a reality.