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Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane talks about the team's decision to extend manager Bob Melvin's contract for three years, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

They were a blink away from the kind of blockbuster trade that the A's almost always do, only completely and astoundingly the opposite.

Yes, the A's were in deep negotiations to acquire infielder Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins ... until the Los Angeles Dodgers waved their checkbook and did the deal themselves.

General manager Billy Beane wouldn't comment specifically on the Ramirez chase when we talked Wednesday afternoon, but he didn't deny any of it, either.

Which means: The A's, the surprise of baseball so far, are surprisingly ready and able to load up on talent and payroll at the trade deadline, and still are sifting through the options.

"You do have to be disciplined," Beane said. "But you also have to respect what this team has done.

"And you want to try to push this as far as it can go this year, and if you can help in any area, you have to do that. You owe them that shot."

So the A's were prepared to give up a prospect or two and take back probably about half of the $35 million remaining on Ramirez's contract, a major departure from past A's practices.

But it's also classic Beane: Just when you think he's doing one thing, he pivots and does the reverse.

He has rebuilt the young talent base of this franchise so swiftly and efficiently that the A's can now jump into the big-ticket trade market.

If it's not Ramirez at a reduced price, then maybe the A's can explore Arizona's Stephen Drew to upgrade their shortstop position.

Or, Beane says, maybe somebody surprising will come available closer to the deadline. Their pitching depth -- at the major- and minor-league level -- means they can part with an arm or two without too much fretting.

They're good, and they're on the hunt. And Beane likes being on the hunt.

One emphasis: Beane said the A's, as always, are built with an eye to two and three years down the road, not only for immediate results.

And suddenly, the A's have a handful of players that Beane now protects like gold bullion.

"We have some young players that are absolutely untouchable," Beane said. "And I've rarely said that -- even internally. I almost never say we can't talk about somebody. Usually, my feeling is that everybody can be discussed.

"But there are a few players that I will not trade -- on the major-league roster and in the minor leagues. I will not consider trading them."

He wouldn't name the untouchables, but surely the list starts with Triple-A pitcher Dan Straily (who currently leads baseball in strikeouts) and probably includes current A's Jarrod Parker and Yoenis Cespedes.

Otherwise, Beane said he and his staff are always "scanning the horizon" for improvements, as every team does.

When I asked him if maybe the A's are already good enough to make a long run into October, Beane said he and his staff have to be realistic.

"Look, we're hitting .228," Beane said (and remember, this was hours before the A's demolition of Toronto on Wednesday night). "I'm not saying that's who we are as an offensive club, but that's what we're hitting.

"We're at a high-water mark right now -- over the last few weeks. We've been playing extremely well and maybe that continues.

"We won four games against the Yankees, and it was great to win them, but they were four one-run games. We could've just as easily lost four one-run games in that series, with a ground ball here or there.

"There wasn't a lot of margin for error there."

There's margin in the payroll, though.

The A's have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, a situation partially created this year when Beane traded away All-Stars Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill for a bounty of talent in return.

Now, one more veteran bat might be one of the last pieces for the 2012 A's. Subtract, and add. It's all in the timing.

"The challenge isn't the money issue," Beane said. "Finding the right guy is the bigger issue."

And Beane is on the hunt. He's enjoying the run so far, but it's his nature to think above the next move, and around the next curve.

By the time you figure out what it is, the A's probably already will be there, planning for the next-next thing.

Read Tim Kawakami's Talking Points blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com.