It is no simple question. Everyone from Billy to opposing pitchers know that the A's need a middle-of-the-order bat added to the current configuration, before the A's are back in the "contention conversation," and I believe the A's need to avoid the Casey Blakes who are "ok but not special" and the Frank Thomases who are "not part of the 2010 conversation," and find a way to add a hitter who can anchor the team through at least the 2009-2012 seasons.
But when you look at the available "too legit to quit" hitters Oakland could target, they tend to have qualities that make them poor targets:
Past Their Prime: For Pat Burrell, on the free agent market you will pay too much for years in Burrell's mid-to-late 30s. That is almost never a good idea. I would love to add Troy Glaus and figure out where to play whom later, but again Glaus is 32 and exiting the years when players tend to be most productive and healthy.
Very Costly In Talent To Acquire: Jason Bay seems like the closest thing to an ideal fit, but if the Pirates are smart (and GMs aren't as dumb as you think as often as you think), they will not let their star player go without getting a return that includes players like Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Henry Rodriguez, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Sweeney - in other words, precisely the guys the A's are counting on to make the team special over these coming years. Trouble is, teams that aren't close to winning want Cahill and Anderson and Rodriguez, not Street and Ellis, and teams close to winning will not be eager to trade their cleanup hitter, now or this Winter, for Oakland's 4th and 5th best young pitching prospects.
So what is the right approach for Beane to take to try to secure a legitimate hitter who could be productive for the next four years? Personally, I think Cahill and Anderson should be untouchable, even in the tempting quest to finally upgrade this frustratingly inept offense. Starting pitching is the cornerstone of success, and those two seem like as close to "sure things" to develop into solid, if not front-end, major league starters. I tend to think the one trade chip Oakland might entertain is Henry Rodriguez, a guy whose tremendous upside makes him incredibly appealing to teams but with whom the A's, thanks to the depth of having Cahill and Anderson, could afford to part. Rodriguez, packaged with James Simmons or Vince Mazzaro, might help fetch you a worthy major league ready, or mid-to-late 20s, hitter for the middle of the lineup.
But who? Who is the right hitter and what team is the right trading partner, and does the right player happen to play for the right team? For some reason, the name that keeps popping back into my mind is Ryan Garko, a right-handed hitter who is 27, could bat 4th in the A's lineup, plays for a team (Cleveland) that is not going to win this season, and happens to be having a down year. He also happens to play 1B, not SS or 3B or LF - oh well - and acquiring a 1B for the long-term would put Daric Barton's future with Oakland in question.
But if Rodriguez, Simmons, Mazzaro, Street (great fit for Cleveland, IMO), and maybe Barton himself were put into the "let's find a deal" conversation for Garko, or for Garko plus __, I would have to think Cleveland would be all ears. Is there a deal there, maybe for the right two of those five A's, that might be good for both teams?
And if it's not Garko - and that's just one of a zillion hypothetical possibilities - how should the A's go about landing the right guy to bat 4th from 2009-2012, so that Oakland can get back to the business of rebuilding a team that can score enough to win more baseball games than the Angels do?