With the 2011 Oakland A's battling for first place in the AL West to start the season, the A's brass may be put in a position of exploring options this summer as to how they may go about improving the team and shoring up weaknesses for the stretch run—and beyond.
And depending on the degree of futility their offense demonstrates, the A's may be forced to add a bat or two as we get closer to the July 31 trading deadline for the stretch run.
The A's, unlike some other clubs, must always juggle a delicate balance between keeping their payroll in check, maintaining long-term viability and stability, along with trying to improve a team that is looking to make a run at the postseason.
The A's options for improving their 2011 team mid-season are limited. They don't have many trade pieces. They don't have a whole lot of positions open, and the front office seems content (for the time being) at just about every position other than third base. Yet their lineup is wallowing at the bottom of MLB in every major offensive statistical category for the second-straight year.
The A's don't have any options in the minor leagues, and seem unwilling to hand over an everyday job to a rookie and let them get their feet wet while the team is desperately trying to scrap together wins. The A's farm system has been depleted and has not homegrown an impact position player since Eric Chavez over 10 years ago (Nick Swisher does not count).
Considering that the starting rotation and bullpen are both stable and deep, the lineup will be the main focus going forward.
Presumably the A's would be looking more towards a left-side-of-the-infield type player, but depending on how much, or how little, the offense improves, what position their targeted players plays may not matter as much. Their outfield is already five deep, but none of them are spectacular and immune from losing at-bats. Worst of all, none of them have much trade value.
Here is a list of feasible acquisitions (in no particular order) that may help shore up their lineup for, both the stretch run and possibly into the future.
Center fielder B.J. Upton has numerous things going for him that make him a viable option to both be traded and suitable for the A's.
Upton was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft, he is a "tools" player, he has underperformed since his breakout year in 2007 (.299/.385/.508, 24 HR, 82 RBI, 22 SB), and he has been unable to reach a contract extension with the Rays, as he is eligible for free agency after 2012.
Upton is essentially playing for a contract and the Rays are ready to unload him as they rebuild. According to the Boston Globe, some Major League Baseball evaluators are expecting Upton to be traded regardless of how well or how poorly the Rays are playing; they are expecting a deal similar to the one they got for Matt Garza last winter, which included Sam Fuld.
So why should the A's want him?
His unique combination of power and speed (40-plus steals in each of the last two years) is hard to find, and Upton is playing for a contract and will most likely outperform his salary, both this year and next. Even if he has a career year in 2011, the A's would only have to offer him arbitration, which would be less than $10 million. And if Upton played out of this world (he is still entering his prime at 26 years old), it probably means the A's are in the playoffs.
More importantly, Upton would immediately become their best outfielder—both in the field and at the plate, due to his combination of base-stealing ability and power potential—and would be a candidate to be in their long-term plans, or, if he plays himself out of the A's market, become trade bait to flip for more prospects.
Upton's dynamic skills could suit him for the No. 2 or No. 3 hole if they want to utilize his speed, or put him down in the No. 5 hole to maximize his power potential. Upton is still a legit 30-40 home-run candidate at this point in his career, and the fact that he hasn't set the world on fire may put him in the A's market.
How Upton plays over the next two months will impact what the Rays will expect for him in a trade. But the Rays have already shown their cards, and Upton may be had for a reasonable offer of three mid-major prospects.
Royals infielder Mike Aviles is an underrated, and largely unnoticed, infielder and, like Upton in the outfield, he would immediately become their best infield hitter.
He has played extensively at 3B, SS and 2B, he is still in his prime at 30 years of age, he makes just $640,000 this year, and he is a career .295 hitter. In the two seasons he has played over 100 games, he has hit .304 (2010) and .324 (2008).
After a rough start to the year, Aviles is back to his underrated self, upping his average to .260 with five home runs and 25 RBI.
The A's could put him at third every day, and also use him to spell Pennington at shortstop and Ellis at second base.
He is also not just a short-term solution; he could be insurance in case Jemile Weeks, Adrian Cardenas or Grant Green do not establish themselves over the next two years. He's probably due for a slight pay increase in arbitration this winter, but he is years away from free agency.
There has been no indication that the Royals are shopping Aviles, especially since the Royals are above .500 to start the year. But the Royals currently have a crowded infield, plus two top prospects on the way—3B Mike Moustakas and SS/2B Christian Colon—and are also unlikely to sustain their success in the AL Central.
As July approaches, Aviles may be available, particularly because the Royals possess arguably one of the deepest farm systems in baseball right now.
Aviles might not cost more than one or two mid-to-major prospects. They might be able to get him for Tyson Ross straight-up. But as reports surfaced Wednesday that Dallas Braden will miss the rest of the season, the A's may now be unwilling to give Ross away.
Rockies 3B Ian Stewart is still just 26 years old and was once one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
He has lost that title due to inconsistency at the plate, combined with a poor contact rate. He was sent down to Triple A to start the season, but was recently called back up after raking in the minor leagues. He has struggled since, and CBS reported that manager Jim Tracy recently said he and the Rockies are just about at the end of the line with Stewart.
Stewart is just two years removed from hitting 25 home runs. However, he has only hit .238 for his career.
Although the left-handed hitting Stewart may never become much more than a .250 hitter, he is a corner infielder with 30 home-run power potential who is still very young and may benefit from a change of scenery. He could pose as a low-risk, high-reward type deal. And, considering the A's current options at 3B, I would—and think most A's fans should—feel more comfortable with Stewart playing everyday over Kevin Kouzmanoff and Andy LaRoche.
Stewart is relatively cheap ($2.2 million), and just over a year away from free-agency, meaning he'll be playing for his livelihood—every employer's dream.
Though Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins is trending upward in the wrong category (age: 33) and trending downward in the wrong category (stat line: .220/.270/.315), he is still an upgrade at 3B. Despite having no power, his ability in the No. 2 hole behind Coco Crisp would give the A's—which lack power and a knack for hitting w/RISP—an improved ability to manufacture runs. Figgins has averaged 45 steals per year since 2005.
The A's and Mariners engaged in talks before the season about a swap that involved Kevin Kouzmanoff. Why the Mariners—which are still in rebuilding mode—would want Kouzmanoff is beyond me. The Mariners do not want to pay Figgins—who has been a disappointment with the team thus far—the $26 million left on his contract that runs through 2013.
Certainly the A's would expect the Mariners to pick up a portion of that tab, along with Figgins improving on his horrid numbers.
Industry sources told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser that the A's are listed on Figgins no-trade-clause, but that if the Mariners were in last place, Figgins would entertain the idea of waiving it.
This is another case where the A's might not have to give up much, considering the Mariners' main focus is unloading most of his salary. And though the A's need power more than they need speed, they'll take whatever they can get. Having two speedsters like Crisp and Figgins at the top of the lineup is very unique, and could help them win games—especially late when it matters most.
Surprisingly, Padres 1B/3B Jorge Cantu signed a one-year deal this offseason with the Padres to be a backup.
If you put Cantu's recent numbers next to Kevin Kouzmanoff's or Daric Barton's, it is puzzling as to why the A's didn't chase Cantu in the offseason.
In 2008 and 2009, Cantu was quietly a very productive hitter with the Marlins, even at the deepest offensive position of 1B. Combined, he hit 45 home runs, had 195 RBI and batted over .280. If you put him at 1B or 3B with the A's, it is an upgrade and he becomes their best hitting infielder. He has the power that Barton, Kouzmanoff and the rest of the lineup lack (with the exception of Willingham).
The A's would probably look to put a player like Cantu at third, but he or any other first baseman should take some at bats away from Barton. I'm not sure why the A's are so intent on locking Barton up as the first baseman of the future. Barton will never hit for even modest power, and shows no sign of being the legit .300 hitter that is required of a first baseman to compensate for his lack of pop. He'll always walk, and if he was a catcher like he used to be, he would have a lot more value, but he plays the power position of first base.
Cantu makes $850,000 and could be had for chump change. I don't know why the A's wouldn't want to do this tomorrow.