The hourglass has not emptied yet on the A's, but they're facing an uphill battle to climb back into contention for their first playoff berth in four seasons.
They sit 10 games out in the American League West as they begin a six-game road trip today in Baltimore, and if they don't make up ground quickly, general manager Billy Beane will face a familiar decision: keep the team intact or trade off his marketable veteran players before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
Right-hander Ben Sheets and center fielder Coco Crisp already are being mentioned as names that could generate interest.
With the division-leading Texas Rangers and second-place Los Angeles Angels playing well — and the possibility that both could get stronger through trades of their own — it appears unlikely the A's would become buyers as the deadline approaches.
In recent seasons, Beane hasn't hesitated to deal his marquee players for prospects, once he deemed the A's out of contention (see: Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton). But he said he likes the influence his current cast of veterans is having on the younger players around whom the A's are trying to build. Thus, he claims he won't part easily with anyone.
"The few veterans that we have are instrumental," Beane said. "At this time, I'm not looking at the trade deadline. And once we get there, those points will (be considered). Part of developing a young team is trying to win as many games as you can."
The decision Beane faces is whether the value of that veteran presence outweighs the potential return the A's could get by dealing a player or two.
Sheets, 3-7 with a 5.01 ERA, has been very hittable while coming back from an elbow injury that sidelined him all of last season. But two major league scouts, who requested anonymity, said they believe the four-time All-Star could be attractive to teams.
"I think he looks pretty good actually," one scout said. "Stuff-wise, it's always there. Yeah, he runs deep in counts and his fastball can be straight. But for a contending club looking for a No. 5 guy, there's going to be interest."
It's believed that when, or if, the Seattle Mariners deal highly coveted lefty Cliff Lee, it will stimulate the trade market for other starters. A second scout said he would take Sheets over Baltimore's Kevin Millwood, another trade candidate who's comparable to the A's right-hander.
"I wouldn't be afraid to sprint in August or September with Sheets," the scout said.
Still, a third scout who also spoke on condition on anonymity is skeptical of what the market will be for either Sheets or Crisp.
Acquiring Sheets also means assuming the remainder of the one-year, $10 million contract the A's gave him. The A's likely would be asked to eat a portion of that, but another team still would be sinking a sizable investment into a pitcher with an expiring contract having a subpar year.
Crisp has played in just seven games because of two lengthy stays on the disabled list. He's making $4.75 million this season, and the A's hold a $5.75 million club option for 2011 with a $500,000 buyout.
Crisp seemingly would have to string together a healthy few weeks to garner interest. He's made an impact in the leadoff spot since coming off the DL on Tuesday, so that's something for the A's to consider before dealing him.
"He brings that veteran leadership and excitement," A's closer Andrew Bailey said. "He can do what Rajai (Davis) does. They're game-changers."
One scout said he thought second baseman Mark Ellis was one of the A's more marketable trade chips. The A's could consider dealing Ellis if they were sold on Adam Rosales as an everyday second baseman. And the team faces a decision anyway on whether to exercise Ellis' $6 million club option for next season.
But Ellis is known for his terrific work ethic, and if Beane truly values his veterans as mentors for his younger players, that could be incentive to keep Ellis.