I don't know whom the A's will or won't in fact pursue in trades or the free agent market, but that won't stop me from using specifics to make a general point: that the A's are not actually that far from being competitive in 2009 while still "staying the course" on building a solid foundation for 2010-2014. So as the off-season officially begins, here's a sample scenario with which I'd be jiggy:
On the free agent market, with the payroll flexibility to make a competitive offer the A's can afford to pursue Rafael Furcal, whose price tag will inevitably be lowered by his May back surgery. I would most certainly jump at the chance to offer sign Furcal to a 1-2 year deal but I also would not shy away from committing to a 4-5 year deal if the medical outlook is strong.
Furcal has already come back from his back surgery to play a few games for the Dodgers and it appears his surgery and recovery were basically successful. He will turn just 31 in October, and he fills needs that are substantial up and down the organization: a SS and a true leadoff hitter. Prior to a down year in 2007, for four seasons (2003-06) Furcal's OPS ranged from .758 to .814, while he averaged 14 HRs and 34 steals in 42 attempts. Then he was off-the-charts good in 2008 before his surgery, proving that 2007 was not the start of any decline (probably it was more a sign that he needed the surgery). If Furcal can come back anywhere near as strong as before, he's worth a lot and if the A's are not splurging for a free agent power hitter like Dunn or Burrell, they can well afford to nab Furcal as a solution to the organizational black hole that has been SS.
The A's go after Troy Glaus - yes, a team rebuilding for 2010 on tries to deal for a guy with one year left on his contract. Why? Because Glaus can help give the A's a shot at being competitive in 2009 and there's no saying they couldn't look at a possible contract extension if both parties wanted. Glaus would be a huge addition to the A's lineup and he would be great insurance for the uncertainty about where Eric Chavez will be able to play. Potentially, you could play Chavez at 3B for 75 games and DH for another 60, while putting Glaus at 3B for 75 games and DH for another 80 - with flexibility to give or take on the exact numbers as Chavez' shoulder goes.
The A's have pieces to offer that should appeal to the Cardinals, from Huston Street to a young starting pitcher (be it Eveland, Braden, or - gasp - Mazzaro) to Bobby Crosby, who could thrive in the National League with a new organization, would be expendable if the A's signed Furcal, and who would be an upgrade for St. Louis over the status quo that is Cesar Izturis. I could see a win-win package emerging from those pieces - perhaps it's Street and Crosby that wind up packing for Missouri.
Maybe it's overkill, but let's say the A's go one step further and "buy low" on Ryan Garko, a 27 year old 1Bman whose lousy first half in 2008 obscured the fact that for three of the last four half seasons he has been excellent. After batting .289/.359/.483 (.842 OPS) with 21 HRs in 2007, Garko rebounded from a pre-All Star Break thud (.668 OPS) to revert right back to form in the second half (.315/.385/.480, an .865 OPS). Garko also rakes left-handed pitching, slugging .503 and posting a near .900 OPS (.896) for his career.
What would it take to get Garko from the Indians, who have Matt LaPorta and Victor Martinez potentially in the 1B mix, with minor league sluggers Wes Hodges and Beau Mills on the way? Probably not all that much. The Indians' biggest current needs are pitching based, both starting and closing, meaning they should also covet Street (if he's not dealt elsewhere first) and should also be keen on the A's haul of major league ready starters. Perhaps it's a young starter, like Mazzaro, who ends up packing for Ohio.
So let's imagine that after inking Furcal as the one free agent signing, the A's have to part with Street, Crosby, and a promising young starter such as Mazzaro, in order to land Glaus and Garko. Your 2009 A's lineup, with Barton in AAA, Buck and Cunningham in the mix for OF playing time:
Furcal - SS
Cust - LF
Glaus - 3B/DH
Chavez - 3B/DH
Garko - 1B
Sweeney - RF
Suzuki - C
Gonzalez - CF
Ellis or Pennington - 2B
The starting pitching is still set with Duchscherer, Gallagher, Smith, Eveland, Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Outman fighting for five spots, plus Simmons, Cahill, and Anderson on the way. The bullpen is still strong with Devine, Ziegler, and Blevins at the front end, along with other options from those who don't make the rotation.
You're telling me that team couldn't compete in 2009 and still be strong going forward? The A's aren't that far away, folks - you're allowed to get excited.