I want to discuss the A's and the so-called "success cycle" before doing any other sort of analysis because the concept is an important in determining the merit of any roster move. The basic idea is that a team that is capable of contending in the short term should be more willing to sacrifice long term assets whereas a team that has no hope of competing in the next year or two should avoid wasting resources on players that are only likely to be useful on a short term basis.
An organization that accurately determines how realistic it is that it can contend for the playoffs will maximize playoff appearances and minimize mediocre seasons. The impact of this has particular relevance to low-revenue teams; the Yankees can seemingly spend their way out of any mistakes they made, whereas a miscalculation by the A's could be disastrous. The Pirates, who haven't been remotely close to the playoffs since 1992, represent the worst case scenario of what happens when you don't understand the concept. For years they signed guys like Pat Meares and Derek Bell, hoping they could maybe reach .500, but that's not even a goal they give out trophies for. As my high school basketball coach used to say, "Aim high, get high. Aim low, get low."
The logical next question, this being an A's blog and all, is "where do the A's fall on said success cycle?" I don't think that's the right place to start, though. As I mentioned above it's plausible, or even likely, that the success cycle doesn't really apply to teams that can spend seemingly infinite amounts of cash. The Yankees and Red Sox can -- and to a certain extent do -- sign any top tier free agent they want, draft picks that fall for signability reasons, and the top international amateur prospects.
What about the other end of the spectrum? Do the rules of the success cycle apply to an extremely low-revenue team, like the A's? Here's how it would work theoretically. A team with a strong enough scouting and player development system could be primarily made of players with less than six years of service time, filled in with minor league free agents and other veterans on one or two year deals. Oh, wait, that's not hypothetical. This is what the A's roster actually looks like. Their only commitments past this season are Michael Wuertz for $2.8 million, team options (with buyouts) for Eric Chavez, Mark Ellis, and Coco Crisp, and arbitration figures for nine or ten other guys. (Also Wuertz' deal bought out his last arbitration year.) (BIG thanks to Cot's Baseball Contracts.)
This strategy seems to be sustainable as well (and seems to be what the Rays, Marlins and Twins are doing). You lock up your youngsters for as long as you can and when you can no longer afford them trade them for new prospects or let them walk after six years and hope they were good enough to become a Type A free agent and get draft picks when they sign elsewhere. As long as useful veterans like Ben Sheets, Orlando Hudson, and Bobby Abreu are signing cheap-ish, one year deals and the minor league system keeps producing major league talent, then I can see this strategy resulting in competitive teams.
Is this ideal? No way, far from it. First off, World Series teams need superstars and it's hard to draft and develop more than one or two every few years. Second, if executing this strategy yields marginal success (e.g. winning 90 games but missing the playoffs), you're stuck with a low first round pick and your chances of drafting a superstar diminishes further (this is mitigated by the fact that having a good team should result in higher revenues). Lastly, the margin of error is still quite slim. Re-sign the wrong player (see Eric Chavez) or lock up a replacement level player through his arb years (see Terrence Long) and you get in a financial jam pretty quickly.
I think understanding that this is how the A's have been operating, and will continue to operate, is important to being an A's fan. We've long been resigned to the fact that we won't be able to keep the stars we develop and to expect rapid roster turnover. But we need to also keep in mind that this is a viable strategy to be competitve.