Despite being in last-place, the Oakland A's (27-30) enter Friday's action just four games behind the AL West leading Texas Rangers with all signs pointing to the A's being in the position of potential buyer when the July 31 trading deadline arrives in less than two months.
For the next six weeks, the narrative of the team will largely center on whether the lineup improves its production and consistency like the front office anticipates, and how that corresponds to the team's overall record and place in the division.
Just as last year, the A's pitching staff is having to right the ship, leading MLB in ERA (3.01) and quality starts (37) through Thursday's games.
Sustaining this success on the hill will be difficult, as the team's pitching depth has been depleted, no longer giving them the flexibility to trade a major-league starter to improve the lineup.
Dallas Braden, their fourth-starter and underrated veteran, was lost for the year after shoulder surgery in May, and Brandon McCarthy and Braden's replacement, Tyson Ross, went down with sudden and unexpected injuries and have no specific timetables for their return.
Before these injuries it was asked by some writers at Bleacher Report whether the A's would consider trading away either Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez—their 1, 2 and 3 starters—for an impact bat.
This was improbable to begin with—the only way the A's would consider that while trying to make a run at the playoffs would be a trade that made them better both now and into the future, which is unlikely in the trade market—but with the A's concerned over having enough starters at this point makes it unfathomable.
The double-whammy for the A's is that they do not have a particularly strong—or deep—farm system with the pieces, particularly on the hill, to swing a deal for an impact hitter.
Presumably the A's are more willing to part with pitching prospects, considering their top three starters are very young and relatively inexpensive, but the only pitcher (excluding Ross) in Baseball America's top 10 prospects for the A's is LHP Ian Krol (ninth), their 7th-round draft pick out of high school in 2009.
John Sickels of minorleagueball.com rated Krol as a future no. 4 starter whose "polish will make up for lack of plus velocity." Sickels rated no other starter as better than a "C" prospect.
While Ross is now more critical to the team considering its depth issues and is not tradable while on the DL, one has to believe the A's would be more than willing to throw Krol in with perhaps a less than top-tier hitting prospect for a player they thought could dramatically improve the makeup of their lineup.
What value Krol, 20, has to other teams, even those in dire need of future major-league starters, is hard to determine. In Single-A ball in 2010, Krol went 10-4 with a 2.80 ERA, 131 IP and 111 SO with just 28 BB, which amounts to an impressive 4-1 K/BB ratio. However, he has missed all of 2011 thus far from an elbow injury in March that was supposed to have him back in two months.
How much of the A's future should they mortgage to improve the lineup this year?
Krol lacks attention-getting velocity, but Baseball America rated Krol the 26th best high school player in 2009 despite missing his entire senior year.
With a packed major league outfield, along with "B" outfield prospects Michael Taylor, Michael Choice and Aaron Shipman, a package including Krol, Ryan Sweeney and Shipman may or may not be in the vicinity of what the Devil Rays would want in exchange for CF B.J. Upton while being palatable for the A's.
Conor Jackson may have more value than Sweeney, but he is a free agent, and doing so would make room for Upton in the outfield.
I have written that B.J. Upton is perhaps the most feasible impact bat the A's could acquire, and the Rays make a plausible trade partner considering that they may still be trying to compete for the playoffs this year, and thus may be willing to take players like Sweeney and prospects who lack ceiling but are close to major-league ready.
Upton is arbitration eligible this offseason and is due to hit free agency after 2012, and talks regarding an extension have fizzled.
Upton would become the A's most dynamic player on both offense and defense, and will have the incentive to play out of his mind as he works toward his first big contract.
The A's general manager Billy Beane has said that you must give up something to get something, and the way the A's play—both individually and as a team—over the coming weeks will play a huge role in determining whether Beane will be willing to do so prior to the trade deadline.