That the Oakland A's will be sellers at the MLB trade deadline this season is a given. Mired in last place in the American League West, the A's are not close to being in a position of contention. With several veterans on the roster in the final year of their contracts (Josh Willingham, Coco Crisp, David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui, Rich Harden and Conor Jackson), as well as several veteran relievers who could draw interest from other teams (Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow), the A's have little reason not to look to move as many veterans as possible to reinvigorate a farm system that has been decimated by injuries and graduations to the big leagues over the past three seasons.
While offense is the A's most glaring need at the major league level, their minor league system is actually far weaker in the area of starting pitching, especially at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Oakland spent its 2011 first-round pick on Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray, but he has yet to sign and isn't likely to log a significant number of professional innings this season even if he does ink a contract in the near term. Consequently, with their current crop of minor league prospects, the A's are looking at entering the 2012 season with none of their top-10 prospects being pitchers with experience above the High-A level.
Oakland's current pitching staff is young, but with staff ace Brett Anderson slated to miss the rest of this season and likely most of next year, the A's could use some additional high-level pitching talent in their minor league system. Not only would young, high-level minor league pitching talent give the A's more depth in the event of injuries to their current staff, but it would also give Oakland the ability to make a bigger trade with one of their star pitchers (i.e., Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey), should the opportunity for the right deal arise.
The A's should also be in the market for third base prospects. Although the team has seen some good things from the newly acquired Scott Sizemore, it remains to be seen whether he is the long-term answer at third base. Stephen Parker, currently at Double-A Midland, is the only third base prospect in the A's system above A-ball and his defense still isn't where it will need to be for him to play the position in the major leagues. The A's other third base prospects are, at a minimum, two years away from the big leagues.
Beyond top-level starting pitching and third basemen, the A's biggest need is up the middle. Although Oakland has a young middle infield (Jemile Weeks at second, Cliff Pennington at short and Eric Sogard as the back-up), they are relatively thin on middle-of-the-diamond prospects. The A's 2009 and 2010 draft picks were spent on middle-of-the-diamond players, but it is possible that neither Grant Green nor Michael Choice will remain in the center of the field. Green has already been moved from shortstop to centerfield. Second base is another possible destination for him, but it is clear that wherever he is on the diamond, his bat will be leading the way.
Choice has handled centerfield fairly well for High-A Stockton this year, but he may eventually be moved to a corner if he continues to fill out and loses some foot speed. Even if Choice does remain in center, it can never hurt to have multiple centerfield-types in an outfield. It provides for a lot more positional flexibility.
Speaking of positional flexibility, the A's would be wise to target prospects who either have the athleticism to play a number of positions all over the diamond or who are at least average to above-average at their current positions defensively. The A's have in the past acquired hit-first, glove-second prospects, such as Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Adrian Cardenas, and have struggled to find a big league spot for them because of their defensive liabilities.
Unless the A's part with Cahill, Gonzalez or Bailey, they aren't likely to walk away from ths trade deadline with a top-20 major league prospect. However, with so many teams still in the hunt and with the A's having several veterans with good track records and favorable contracts, Oakland should be able to swing a couple of deals to bring back some decent talent.