In 2013 there was one team that made a paltry amount of revenue by MLB standards, yet yielded a higher profit than the Giants, Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox. No, I'm not talking about the A's. I'm talking about the Houston Astros, a team that finished with 100 losses to notch their fifth straight losing season that year, was 27th in the league in attendance and has a TV contract with a network that is just climbing out of bankruptcy.
How did that club turn a $56 million profit? In 2013 the Astros had an opening day payroll that was 30th out of 30 teams, at a paltry $22 million for their 25 man roster. With national TV revenue, the local TV revenue they had coming in (until their network went belly up), ticket sales, a subsidized stadium and of course, not spending any revenues on the players, a team can turn a handsome profit.
The A's of course are not in as dramatic of a cost-cutting mode, but currently their payroll sits at around $70-75 million, about $15-20 million less than 2014. If we take Lew Wolff at his word that MLB payroll is capped at 50% of revenues, we can say that revenues in 2014 were at minimum $180 million. That number may have been higher considering that the A's increased ticket prices and eclipsed 2,000,000 in attendance for the first time in years. That money could be spent on improving the 2015-17 squad and keeping the A's in the AL West hunt.
The problem is, to spend money on good players, you have to do it over multiple years. The A's are generally afraid of doing that. Maybe they are "once bitten, twice shy" with the Eric Chavez contract, or maybe it's the simple fact that having a payroll capped at $90-95 million makes the A's worried about roster flexibility in the future. To be fair, at times they have tried to ink long term deals and players did not take their money (e.g. Rafael Furcal, Adrian Beltre, Chase Headley, etc.).
So maybe that money can be spent in 2015 on short term basis and then available next year. However, is there a sane way to spend a single year payroll excess? Is taking $10 million flyers on the Jim Johnsons of the world worth it? Trading for Chris Youngs? Payroll flexibility is nice if you can add talent, however the "talent" available on short term rentals is typically overpaid underachievers, unless you are willing to pay a handsome price for premium talent (e.g. the Samardzija trade). If the money is not going into long term deals, then spending it on Brandon Moss might have been the best use of funds. High risk, but high reward, and if he is not good you can nontender him at the end of the season. If he is good, you have the money to keep him around (side note: The A's must really, really love Joe Wendle).
The A's actually now have a very young and relatively cheap roster for the next few years. There really aren't any major salary commitments beyond 2015, and arbitration raises will be modest at best (some are nontender candidates as well). Expensive relievers will be traded or cut as usual, and the A's will be able to manage their budget. If there was a time to sign a good player to a longer term deal, this is the time. Ideas have been posted on this site to trade for Jay Bruce, Mark Trumbo, Troy Tulowitzki and others. The wisdom of these moves aside, the A's can afford to take on a good player and still maintain roster flexibility.
As many have written, the A's seem to have a decently competitive roster on paper. In 2016-18 there are some heavyweight prospects that probably will start to make an impact at the major league level (or will get traded for players who will make an impact). Do the A's want to waste 2015 waiting for 2016? Wouldn't it be better to add a player that helps the team now and in the future?
The side effect of this is that there basically are some convenient excuses built in to the model. "We need flexibility" => "We can't spend money on long term deals" => "There aren't good uses of the money" ends up with the lower payroll fattening the bottom line and not going into the product on the field.
There is still plenty of time to assemble the roster. Spending money just to spend it may not make sense, but good players remain available via trade, free agency and the international market. They just might cost some money over the next few years. Will the money be spent, or tossed on top of Uncle Lew's stash? An exciting time to be an A's fan, as always.