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The Final Sell-Off: How the A's Can Land an Elite Hitter

Two questions keep floating around AthleticsNation:

  1. What will the fate be of looming ('08 or '09) free agents Mark Ellis, Bobby Crosby, Justin Duchscherer, Alan Embree, and Huston Street (FA after '10)?
  2. Can the A's somehow acquire a fearsome, middle-of-the-order run producer to anchor their lineup for years to come, as Jason Giambi did during the A's last mini-dynasty?

I think that the answer to #2 is yes, thanks to a wonderful confluence of factors that have made one team match up perfectly for a trade involving the list of A's players in #1. Instead of continuing to piece-meal out his best trade assets one-by-one, leading to more and more uneasiness and distraction with each passing day, Beane could be done with rebuilding trades for years in one fell swoop.

Can you already guess which team, and which coveted hitter, I'm targeting? Here's a few hints in the form of questions, in order from easy to difficult:

1.) Which league does Billy Beane love re-routing his soon-to-be-expensive talent to, so that it's less likely to come back and beat his own team later on?

2.) Which manager pioneered the LOOGY, loves carrying 2 or even 3 lefties, and would highly value Embree's services right now?

3.) Which highly-regarded pitching coach with experience coaching an injury-prone closer with occasional mental/confidence issues might be excited to help the enigmatic Street return to form?

4.) Which team has a gaping closer vacancy not only now, but especially after the season when their high-priced, injury-prone closer hits FA? Which contending team's middle infield is a bastion of offensive futility, with no youthful promise, long-term cost control, or hope for improvement? Which team has three big-name starting pitchers out with serious injuries, and would crave Duke's stabilizing presence? Which team desperately needs to answer the two high-profile acquisitions made by their biggest division rivals in the past two weeks?

If you answered 1) the NL, 2) Tony LaRussa, 3) Dave Duncan, and 4) the Cardinals four times over, you're right. Somehow, one team matches up perfectly with all five players the A's might be looking to jettison in the next few weeks - five players who are about to become more expensive and won't be in their primes when Beane figures the A's can contend again, in 2010 or 2011 and beyond.

Duchscherer would make a great fit for St. Louis, helping to shoulder the burden with Wainwright, Carpenter, and Mulder all on the shelf. It's easy to see a scenario of him making a few good playoff starts for them, loving the atmosphere, and signing an extension at the end of the season.

Crosby, as much as he's maligned here, is actually quite an upgrade over the Cards' Cesar Izturis. The Cards might be attracted to solving their SS question mark for '09 too, and getting a sneak peak at how Crosby responds to a change of scenery and the NL. If Crosby enjoys a mini-renaissance against weaker NL pitching, it's not hard to foresee his next contract coming from the St. Louis, too.

Ellis is the most questionable inclusion on this list: would the Cardinals be willing to bump out incumbent 2b Adam Kennedy, even though he's making $3.5MM this year and owed an additional $4MM for '09? Perhaps they should, considering that Ellis is an obvious upgrade over Kennedy, and would be an ideal plug for their second-base hole for years to come if they liked what they saw and re-signed him this off-season.

Now, if you're an A's fan and you're howling about giving up as many as five legitimate big leaguers, consider that a Cardinals fan would be howling over what the A's would get in return (which is how it always works on the home team's blog, right?)

What makes giving up Duke, Street, Embree, and potentially Ellis/Crosby palatable is receiving arguably the next top-rated minor league hitting prospect in the game in return: Colby Rasmus.

Rasmus is a 6-foot-2, 195 pound, 21-year-old, five-tool center fielder with great plate discipline and impressively low strikeout totals for a power hitter. He will be ready at the latest by the end of '09, and his eventually big league debut will probably end up being as big of a deal publicity-wise as Jay Bruce's was this season. But what makes Rasmus unique is that, despite his prodigious talent, he's probably struggled just enough at AAA this year to avoid the "untouchable" tag that Jay Bruce earned with his second-half performance last year in AAA. I'm guessing Rasmus will only avoid that untouchable tag for another month or two, as he too conquers AAA pitching in the second half of this season, so this could be the last chance for any team to even have a prayer of acquiring him for any offer. If you are casual fan, you probably haven't heard Rasmus' name nearly as much as Bruce's, but the experts perceive Rasmus and Bruce's upside and career projection as very similar.

And that's what we're all looking for the A's to acquire, isn't it? A truly premier offensive player, capable of hitting 30 homers annually and providing a constant threat in the middle of the order. They're so rare, you can't nitpick about the fact that Rasmus is a left-handed hitting outfielder, even if you wish that he was a right-handed hitting shortstop or third baseman. If you're the A's, you try to get him if you can, and you recognize that only a rare combination of luck and fate created a scenario where the A's could instantly upgrade the Cardinals at five different spots on their big-league roster and set them up to push past the Cubs and Brewers to eventually lead the NL into the World Series.

Can the Cardinals afford all this? I'll admit that's a reasonable concern, considering they started the year with a $99MM payroll. However, they have a shiny new stadium, terrific attendance, and they'll have $20MM coming off the books after this season from Looper, Isringhausen, and Encarnacion alone. And more importantly...this is their time! The greatest hitter in the game, Albert Pujols, is theirs and theirs alone through 2011. When you have the greatest hitter in the game, that's the time to break the budget for a few years, and play for the World Series annually. If that means that instead you'll have to scrimp and save when the Contending Wheel has run its course and the dynasty's over, so be it. It might save your owner $126MM on Barry Zito.

For what it's worth, I think this is how the A's are planning to spend their money, long-term. In the next year and a half, if the five aforementioned players are jettisoned as I expect, it's foreseeable that payroll will drop down near Florida Marlins territory in the $35-40MM range, with Eric Chavez as the last link to the early 2000s dynasty. But have faith, because all that saved cash will end up being put to good use:

When Oakland's ballyhooed, soon-to-be-top-ranked farm system produces a flurry of impact pitchers, position players, and ultimately a contender, there will be a similar flurry of long-term extensions doled out and/or long-term money committed. In this hypothetical scenario, clearly Rasmus would be one of those deals, peaking right at the heart of the A's next dynasty. And when the time is right, that team payroll will suddenly explode from $35-$40MM in '09/'10 all the way up to $90MM in a hurry when the new stadium opens, all these prospects reach their arbitration increases, and 26-year-old Justin Upton signs an 8-10 year, $200M-plus free-agent deal in 2014 to lead the AL's new dynasty in Fremont.

Yep, I'm still dreaming that will happen.

Now it's your turn:

Is the basic framework of this deal - ignoring a "C" or "C+" prospect(s) that might come back with Rasmus, and basically sending the Cardinals Duke, Street, and Embree for sure - and maybe Crosby and/or Ellis if that's what seals the deal, depending on what the Cards prefer - is the basic framework of that deal fair? Would you do this deal if you were Billy Beane? Would you do it as the Cardinals' GM?