So the A's enter the All-Star break tied for first place. Their defense is excellent, Nick Swisher had an excellent start, Frank Thomas has been an exciting presence in the lineup, Haren and Zito are having good years, and the bullpen is getting healthy again.
But with Rich Harden out for the forseeable future, Eric Chavez suffering an injury-induced slump that has no end in sight, and the offense looking dormant, Billy Beane faces a dilemma that is extremely unappealing.
Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that Milton Bradley comes back healthy and plays well. That isn't nearly enough to transform a inept offense into something that can do much more than tread water.
The A's first-place status seems like little more than a mirage, a product of a hot June and mediocrity in the rest of the division. The Angels, with their rotation that now includes a healthy Bartolo Colon, still looks like the best team.
But even if the A's manage to win the division, the team is clearly inferior to the White Sox, Tigers, Red Sox, et cetera. I suppose this could be the year that the "playoffs are a crapshoot" mantra works in the team's favor, and a healthy Harden gives the team a formidable playoff rotation. More likely, the A's are knocked out in three or four games in the first round assuming they make it that far - which doesn't look very likely right now.
The obvious choice - trade for hitters! - isn't as likely because Beane doesn't have much to deal in return. The minor league cupboard is pretty bare, aside from a few players Beane is certainly going to keep. His only real bargaining chip is Zito. And if you're going to trade Zito, you're waving the white flag. I don't see Beane doing that unless the A's post-All Star Game road trip is a disaster.
The problem is that simple. The A's don't have enough minor league talent to trade, and were constructed to win this year. Zito's hiring of Scott Boras only confirms that he's gone at the end of the year. Next year, the team's #1 starter may be Dan Haren by default. Two other key members of the 2007 rotation - Loaiza and Blanton - are struggling and can't be counted on for much. And the offense is unlikely to be much better, especially assuming that Frank Thomas doesn't return or isn't as healthy if he does come back.
Considering that the team is tied for first place, the A's situation seems strikingly grim - both for this season and for next year.