We have had a few acquisitions since the last look at the Athletics of late. We have also had a few acquisitions go through for our opposite numbers. The preliminary look is that the A’s are a good second place team in the AL West behind the Rangers, and ahead of the Angels and Mariners. This was true even before the Adrian Beltre acquisition by the Rangers, but with that move, the Rangers have rose farther ahead of us, and it is my belief that if the Rangers go out and acquire a First Baseman or Designated Hitter of quality, the division is all but theirs, despite the strides the A’s have made this off season.

In my last thread, I came to the conclusion that the A’s biggest weakness was Corner Outfield, suggesting Josh Willingham as a good trade target. Like clockwork, after my post, the A’s went out and acquired said Willingham, filling a massive hole in their outfield.

That leaves the other areas of the team that were deemed upgrade worthy: Second Base, Third Base, Fifth Starter and Relief Pitcher.

I, Personally, do not like going after expensive relievers, unless the team is desperate for a closer and has no one internal who is good enough to cement the bullpen, such as the dreaded Arthur Rhodes/Octavio Dotel disaster. Relievers will either cost too much on the free agent market, or cost too much in trade, and the A’s practice of pulling good relievers from their farm system and from the MLB Scrapheap has become something admiral and should be encouraged, and not disrupted by signing an expensive reliever that will cost a pick, or trading for a ‘closer’ or ‘elite setupman’ who would cost valuable prospects.

The flip side is true also, however. Relievers are at a premium right now, and the A’s ability to farm them puts them at a great advantage to sell them for prospects to either bolster their system with or to flip to other teams for something of greater value. Of course, having a great bullpen behind a great pitching staff is also very valuable, since it leaves you in control the entire game when you are leading.

Therefore, I want to focus on the other side of the game, the side we have the most trouble with and the side that makes A’s fans groan when the team gets down a run; the offense.

As I previously identified, we currently have solid production from 1B, SS and Catcher, and now the entire outfield and Designated Hitter. Our problem stems from having no great hitters, which are important to have to carry the team through the valleys of production that occur. The two positions that can be best for the A’s to find in this case are Second Base and Third Base, with an aging Ellis and an offensively challenged Kouzmanoff. Previously, I identified Kouzmanoff being the easiest to replace, as he was Arbitration eligible/Non-tenderable, and if the A’s cut him in Spring Training, they could be responsible for only a fraction of his salary, while Ellis was due his entire $5 Million dollar option. With Beltre off the table, this becomes even more tricky. The A’s need to find a Second Baseman and/or Third Baseman who can produce greater production than Ellis or Kouzmanoff can.

First, let’s figure out how much Ellis and Kouzmanoff are worth. After that, we will locate players that will be an upgrade over them.

According to Fangraphs, Mark Ellis has been worth 2.9, 1.2 and 3.2 WAR over the last three years, with the bulk of his value coming with defense. However, Ellis will also be 34 in 2011. Ellis has also had his share of injuries, making it a very real possibility that we may end up with a repeat of his 2009 campaign than his 2010. Factoring in his injury risk-factor, I would pencil Ellis in for a ~2 WAR season, between his 2009 and his 2010 campaign.

Kouzmanoff saw a huge boost in his defensive statistics in 2010, which also pumped up his value. In the last 3 years, Kouzmanoff has produced a WAR of 2.7, 2.7 and 2.9. I feel that it is safe to predict his value for the upcoming season. We can probably mark Kouzmanoff down as a ~2.8 WAR player for 2010.

If we narrow the field for Second Base to players who have had a combined WAR of over 6 (3 per season), we get the following list:

Chase Utley – 12.8
Ben Zobrist – 11.5
Robinson Cano – 10.7
Dustin Pedroia – 8.3
Dan Uggla – 7.9
Ian Kinsler – 7.8
Rickie Weeks – 7.5
Brandon Phillips – 7.1
Martin Prado – 7.0
Placido Polanco – 6.8
Chone Figgins – 6.7
Kelly Johnson – 6.6
Orlando Hudson – 6.1

That is an impressive list. A few of those players are likely due for decline, and not worth pursuing. Others might very well be untouchable. In another aspect, I am saddened that the A’s did not go after/acquire Dan Uggla, who would have provided a great upgrade for the A’s, especially if they could have mitigated his defensive hit by moving him to Third Base. Disregarding Uggla, the A’s best trade target might be Brandon Phillips if he can be pried from the Reds, as I do not see the Phillies, Rays, Yankees, RedSox, Braves, Rangers or Brewers, all of whom fancy themselves as playoff bound, would deal their starting Secondbaseman. Kelly Johnson might also be an intriguing trade target with the Diamondbacks in sell mode.

Let’s look at Third Base, taking the same qualification of 6 WAR over the last 2 years:

Evan Longoria – 14.2
Ryan Zimmerman – 13.9
Kevin Youkilis – 10.1
Adrian Beltre – 9.6
Scott Rolen – 8.8
Jose Buatista – 8.8
Alex Rodriguez – 8.4
David Wright – 7.4
Casey Blake – 7.2
Pablo Sandoval – 7.0
Martin Prado – 7.0
Placido Polanco – 6.8
Chone Figgins – 6.7
Micheal Young – 6.6
Chase Headly – 6.0

Here, I believe we have a much more open field, filled with gambles. Scott Rolen might be a nice trade target if you pray for health. Ryan Zimmerman would be for sure worth going after in any case, but would Washington dare to deal him? David Wright is a popular player to talk about in trades, and Pablo Sandoval, if you believe that he can remember how to hit and can put up with his defense, would be a buy low opportunity for sure. And no, I would not consider going after Mikey Young.

My feeling is that Third Base is still the best opportunity we have to upgrade. The problem is that upgrades at either position would require a bounty, and our farm system is rather thin as we have seen in the Community Prospect List. Would it be worth emptying, or sacrificing a potential future start at the position we are acquiring for? For example, it is almost a certain that the Nationals would demand Grant Green in any trade for Ryan Zimmerman (signed till 2013), something I would likely do in a heartbeat, but the Nationals would not. Many other teams would also likely demand one or more of Green, Carter or Choice.

Ultimately, the path of least resistance for the A’s to improve, albe likely not enough to catch the Rangers, probably lies in a reacquisition of Joe Blanton with the assumption of his salary, something the A’s have a lot of to spare at the moment with the failed signings of Iwakuma and Beltre. 

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