Here's how a conversation generally goes with a passionate A's fan unclear on the concept:
2008: "We should get J.J. Hardy; he's really good."
"No way -- we'd have to give up so much to get him!!!111"
2009: "We should 'buy low' on J.J. Hardy."
"No way -- now I'm worried that he sucks!!!111"
2008: "We should sign Russell Branyan; he'll be really cheap."
"No way -- he's not that good!!!111"
2009: "We should sign Russell Branyan; he's proven himself now."
"No way -- now he's overvalued!!!111"
"Hasn't proven he's any good yet!!!111"
"On the decline!!!111"
"Too injury prone!!!111"
"Too good; we can't afford him!!!111"
"Not good enough; we don't want him!!!111"
Thing is...If you stay away from players who just showed how bad they can be, and stay away from players who might have just shown the best they'll ever show, stay away from players who are risks for decline and injury, and don't even think about those really pricey players who are good, established, healthy, and in their prime...Who exactly is left?
This Winter's free agent market features the usual blend of all of the above. Marco Scutaro and Russell Branyan will probably never duplicate the seasons they just had, Miguel Tejada has been declining ever since whatever birthday he had 3 years ago, Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer are two of the finest starters who rarely actually pitch, and they certainly never pitch to Nick Johnson, and so on.
The A's current roster has these components as well. You could "sell high" on Rajai Davis and risk trading away one of the few players who actually played well last year -- well at a position where defense is especially important and the dropoff defensively on the current "CF depth chart" is significant. You could trade Travis Buck and/or Daric Barton because they've shown the potential not to be the answer, but then you have to trade them for "might not be the answer" value -- as happened with Sean Gallagher and more recently with Hardy.
The potential trade market is similar too. You could get Garret Atkins for fairly little, but fairly little is what you'll probably get from Garret Atkins. You could roll the dice on the potential hitting prowess of a "major league ready" young slugger like Mat Gamel or Jake Fox, giving up defense for players whose offensive abilities are still unknown. You could hope that Jed Lowrie is as good as he was when he was healthy and is as healthy as he was when he was good, and have two shots at getting burned.
So who might be just good enough to help and just old, young, brittle, or unproven enough to be affordable?
Among free agents, I like Troy Glaus because he's a masher who could provide some insurance at 3B and 1B, while primarily serving as DH (and yes, that means you might see Jack Cust with a glove). The downside is that Glaus is a "triple-threat": He could be declining, he could be injured, and he could be not worth it by way of making Cust field. So it's far from a slam dunk.
Among trade targets, I like Chase Headley because the upside is substantial but he hasn't broken out to where his trade value is through the roof. He also slugged under .400 last season. See? The very reason he might be attainable is also the reason he might be no better than the guys we have (Buck, Cunningham, Barton...). Given that 2009 was not kind to Headley, I wonder what his asking price is for the rebuilding Padres. (Do they know they're rebuilding? If not, someone really should tell them.)
I like Todd Frazier (Reds) because I think he can hit and he is still only a prospect so the asking price shouldn't be outrageous. He also has exactly zero major league hits, walks, and HRs, so it might be a bit early to build the franchise around him.
I also like Shin-Soo Choo because he's really good -- yet the Indians, having recently lost CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, really should be setting their sights on rebuliding their pitching and Choo might be just "not Grady Sizemore or Asdrubal Cabrera" enough to be considered tradeable. Maybe it's because he plays in Cleveland, but Choo strikes me as a real "under the radar" player -- a guy you think is "pretty good" until you actually look at the numbers and realize no, he's "very good." I wonder what the Indians would ask for in return.
I also wonder where my pants are. Curse you, Sunday morning!