Six weeks ago, it seemed like nothing would be more obvious than the fact that the A's would be making Jed Lowrie available at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Lowrie is 34, an impending free agent and having his second straight outstanding season. Oakland was under .500 as recently as June 15, a full 11 games behind surging Seattle for the second American League Wild Card spot. After three straight losing seasons, the A's were going to sell. Of course they were going to sell.
It's safe to say that's no longer a concern. The A's were the hottest team in baseball before being swept by the Rockies in Colorado over the weekend. They are nevertheless only two games behind those same Mariners for a playoff spot. If we really want to go crazy, Oakland is only six games behind Houston in the AL West with six more head-to-head matchups.
The A's are not going to sell. They're going to buy, or at least they ought to -- and they might need to do it more than nearly any other team.
They know this, of course. "We're going to make every effort to do everything we can," said Oakland executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane. "It's my belief that it is your responsibility to respond to your team when it's playing the way our team is."
Beane is not wrong. But many of the teams buying so far are adding around the margins, or looking ahead to October. You can't say that the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Indians and Red Sox have all wrapped up playoff spots yet, but you can say they're all heavy favorites to do so, and those are the teams who have added the biggest trade pieces so far: Manny Machado, Zach Britton, J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels, Brad Hand, Adam Cimber and Nathan Eovaldi. Those clubs are correct to add, but they'd be just fine either way.
Yet for the A's, despite their recent run, nothing is guaranteed. They would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today, and they're basically in a 50/50 coin flip situation with the Mariners, whom they still must play 10 more times. With both teams badly in need of starting pitching, they might very well be in play for the same players, meaning that a trade now might not only help your club for the rest of the year, it might literally change who you're facing in the biggest games.
It's a difficult balancing act, because it's not smart long-term planning to go all-in for what might be the reward of a one-game trip to Yankee Stadium in October, but opportunities like this don't come along that often. You can't come this far and not take advantage, even if it's difficult to see the A's trading top prospects like pitcher Jesus Luzardo (the No. 12 overall prospect at MLB Pipeline) or catcher Sean Murphy (No. 54) unless it is in an unlikely deal for a controllable difference-maker like Jacob deGrom.
Still, that doesn't mean Oakland doesn't have pieces to trade, like Triple-A third baseman Sheldon Neuse, one of the prizes of last year's Sean Doolittle trade, who is beyond blocked by Matt Chapman, and thanks to a very young core, they have money to spend. (The A's have less than $14 million committed to 2019's payroll, all to Yusmeiro Petit and Stephen Piscotty, though that figure will likely double or triple once you include more than a dozen arbitration-eligible players.).
Remember: We've seen Oakland do this before. Back in 2014, the A's were sailing along in July as the best team in baseball, though it was clear a rotation staffed by Tommy Milone, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez and Sonny Gray (then in his first full season) wasn't going to be good enough. They went out and traded for Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija; while the year ended in a Wild Card defeat, they pushed their chips in to win. You can't always wait for tomorrow.
All that being said, where should the A's add, and how should they do it? Keep an eye on these spots.
Oakland's rotation, beset by injuries to Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Daniel Gossett and A.J. Puk, hasn't been strong. The A's are 20th in starter ERA (4.39), 28th in strikeout rate (17.2 percent), and to be totally honest, you don't need numbers to know that things haven't gone according to plan when veteran journeymen Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill comprise three-fifths of the rotation.
Video: OAK@SF: Manaea holds Giants to 2 runs over 6 innings
The starting pitching market is exceptionally weak this year, meaning there's no ace coming. Then again, simply adding a viable average arm would be of use here -- and would keep that arm away from Seattle. For short-term, league average-ish rentals, there's Mike Fiers or Matt Harvey, or old friends Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon or Gio Gonzalez. For breakout young arms with one more year of control, there's Kyle Gibson or Zack Wheeler, maybe the market's best starter.
Then again, maybe this doesn't matter as much as you might think, because…
...Oakland's bullpen is really, really good, and the A's already made a move for a reliever, trading for Jeurys Familia of the Mets. He joins a deep bullpen that already featured Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, Emilio Pagan, Petit and Ryan Buchter. This is baseball, 2018: If your rotation isn't good and you can't upgrade there, you might as well overload your bullpen and fire reliever after reliever at the opposition.
As good as Buchter has been, however, he's the only current lefty Oakland reliever, and only three teams have had fewer plate appearances go to lefty relievers, almost entirely Buchter and Danny Coulombe.
Video: Buchter, Treinen, Trivino lead A's to Bullpen of Week
One interesting name would be Miami's Adam Conley, who has added five miles per hour to his fastball this year and doubled his strikeout rate while doing it. Let's also ask this question: What if the A's went to Texas for Mike Minor, who was a fantastic reliever last year (2.55 ERA, 29 percent strikeout rate), but has struggled as a starter this year (4.83 ERA, 19 percent strikeout rate), and moved him back into relief?
We're noting this here because this spot has been a huge weakness, as Jonathan Lucroy and other A's catchers have hit only .228/.282/.331, the fourth-weakest line in the game. (Lucroy also ranks near the bottom of pitch framing metrics, at minus-three runs.) It's his second straight weak season. The problem is, there's not much to do here, barring an unexpectedly huge deal for Miami's J.T. Realmuto. Is Devin Mesoraco worth the effort? Maybe. Maybe not.
A lefty-swinging outfielder
Finally, we come to the outfield, where Piscotty has been solid in right, but the A's center fielders, mostly Dustin Fowler and Mark Canha, have hit just .214/.265/.391, fifth-weakest in the game. All lefty Oakland outfielders combined have hit only .217/.295/.369, fourth-weakest in the game, and most of that is from Fowler and the injured Matt Joyce.
It would be interesting to see if Pittsburgh would part with Corey Dickerson (.323/.350/.553), but the Pirates are on a hot streak of their own. Instead, an intriguing fit here would be Miami's Derek Dietrich, hitting .301/.370/.475 this year, and capable of playing three infield positions as well as left field. There's also an argument to be made for Detroit's Leonys Martin, who is less of a hitter (.254/.328/.416) but is a fantastic defensive center fielder … and who among us doesn't want to see Oakland go wild and extract Bryce Harper from a sinking ship in Washington?
That's not likely to happen, but we know the A's are (correctly) not taking this opportunity lightly. So let's wrap up by pointing out that opportunities exist to improve this club, right now and in ways that may require good prospects, but not necessarily their best ones. These three seem the most promising.
1. For Conley and Dietrich from Miami.
2. For Fiers and Martin from Detroit.
3. For Ross from San Diego.
Those may not be the biggest names. Then again, that might fit perfectly. This is an Oakland club that's full of names most people outside the Bay Area don't know -- and that's worked out pretty well so far.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.