I'd be lying if I said I was completely satisfied with the A's lack of activity since the Holliday trade. Although I wrote last week about how I was content just looking forward to seeing Holliday playing for the A's, I'd be a lot happier if the A's justified the trade by improving their roster even more over the next month or two. There's simply no way that this team will be competitive next season as currently constructed. It will certainly be better than last year's team (or at least the team that took the field in August & September of '08) just by virtue of the presence of Matt Holliday and presumed better health for Ellis, Chavez, Buck and Duke (hence my prior euphoria). Yet, even perfect health from those four, plus 2008-like performances from Suzuki and Sweeney, would leave this team at least two pieces away from serious 2009 contention. Those two pieces, in my opinion, are a dependable 2/3 starting pitcher and a 1st baseman that can reach or exceed league-average production with the bat (I'm just gonna assume that the A's will have to live with Crosby at short for at least the 1st half of the season.)
Now, back a few weeks ago when it seemed like Beane had unlimited resources to address those (and other) needs, I felt confident that the A's would be able to spend some coin to address at least two areas of concern via free agency. I felt like Beane would be able to, say, nab Giambi with a 2-year deal and get Randy Johnson for 1-year and still come in under budget. Since that time, however, it's become apparent that Beane's previously-thought-of payroll flexibility has been significantly tightened in light of the financial crisis. We'll never know exactly how much of a hit Beane has taken, but what we can infer from the recent hot stove chatter out there is that Beane is now back trolling the waters for the bargains in free agency (Giambi/Dunn/Burrell) rather than going after the (relatively) big fish he had been linked with earlier in the Winter (Furcal).
With that in mind, he's possibly all-but-ruled out going after BOTH a starting pitcher and a 1st base bat. He simply doesn't have the resources he thought he did to delve into a two front negotiating war with the dwindling market for free agents. So, if Beane can't squeeze a starter and a 1st baseman into the budget, and has to choose one or the other, why is he focusing on 1st base when clearly the starting rotation needs as much veteran help as the offense?
Well, in my optimistic interpretation of the situation, I think Beane is playing the markets to his greatest advantage. At this point, there are more impact bats on the market than there teams that can pay them what they want. Abundant supply plus minimal demand means that at least one of these guys will come at a discount relative to his value. On the other hand, now that the Big Unit has signed with the Giants, there are very few free agent starters out there that will a) be a major impact pitcher next season, b) only be looking for a 1 or 2 year deal and c) be available for a workable (less than $12 million) per-year salary. In fact, the only two remaining arms in the free agent class that come even close to that bill would be Ben Sheets and/or Randy Wolff, both of whom come with injury histories and favorable numbers from spending their entire careers in the National League...and even then they still might be out of the price range, seeing as how every other pitching-starved team will be courting them. As much as I'd like to see the A's pick up Sheets, I just don't see it happening. The guy rejected arbitration after earning $12 million last season so he's obviously confident that he can get at least that much, if not more plus multiple guaranteed years, from a team on the open market. I don't think Beane wants to go over $10-12 million or more than two years for any pitcher, let alone an injury-risk.
That leaves Beane with all of his cash to spend on a bat. He's not jumping all over Giambi or Abreu or Burrell with that cash, but rather he's going to wait the market out and see which one falls into his lap at HIS price (say, $16 million for 2 years). At that point, I think Beane sits on the team for the time being. He'd have improved the offense overall and got two sluggers at major slugging-oriented positions (left field, 1st base) and would presumably still have some cash left over.
Say Chavez and Duke are 100-percent healthy for the 1st half of '09, Giambi/ Burrell/Cust do their things (walks/homers), the young players make a little progress and Holliday puts in another-MVP like half-season...then at that point Beane can re-assess the market (at a time when teams will have a much better read on their chances) and make a major move for another starter or even JJ Hardy or Tejada, who will be 1/2 year cheaper to acquire in July rather than right now.
Basically, what I'm seeing here with Beane, is that he realizes that a lot of things have to go right in order for this team to be truly competitive next season. Chavez, Duke and Ellis have to be 100-percent healthy, and then on top of that one of the young starters (Gallagher, Gio, Eveland) has to quickly emerge as a consistent, better-than-mid-rotation pitcher. That's a lot to ask for but not entirely implausible. Being a gambler, I could see Beane betting that those things happen (improved health and a breakout from a young pitcher) and then could see him elect to improve the offense around the edges (with Giambi/Abreu/Burrell) and then enter the season with both prospects and cash to spare for the trade deadline when the market for both shortstops and starting pitchers may improve when a more clear buyer/seller dynamic can be established.
Overall, I'm just trying to rationalize why we haven't seen much more activity out of the A's front office. Perhaps the plan is to improve the offense on a budget (the cheapest of Giambi/Abreu/Burrell), enter the season with payroll flexibility , see how the young pitchers perform in the 1st half and then make a play for the missing piece(s) at mid-season?
Then again, i really could just be totally mis-reading Beane altogether and we'll all see him go out and sign Garret Anderson as a combination starting pitcher/DH, thereby killing all his birds with one big, irrational and highly unexpected stone.