There are two camps right now amongst A's fans. One camp looks at a sub-70 win team and does not view contention, as soon as 2016, to be a realistic goal. Another sees the chance for brighter days ahead not just in 2017-19, but even as soon as next year.
I tend to fall in the second camp, which is to say that I think the A's are pretty close to having a good team now, not just eventually. Don't look at wins and losses, because this year's AL West champs, unless they actually succeed in choking it away, is a Texas Rangers team that lost 95 games in 2014. No, the A's aren't any good with a rotation of Gray-Bassitt-Nolin-Brooks-Doubront, but that also won't be their rotation come April, 2016, not even close.
Today I will break down two hypothetical off-season signings to see how the team would look, but then the all important follow-up question is, "Could the A's actually do this?" The idea is that Beane & Co. would view 2016-19 as representing a solid window they could ride for four years if they just added a couple key pieces now to supplement what Oakland has along with what it knows it has coming through the pipeline.
In other words, spend some money now knowing you will not have to do so again for several years. The idea is to add a quality LFer, and a quality SP, on roughly 4-year deals. Those players have to be good enough to be "difference makers" without being so good that they are absurdly unaffordable.
Throw out, as being out of the A's price range, free agents such as Jason Heyward, Juston Upton, and David Price. Rule out, as simply not being exciting enough, "nice additions" such as Gerardo Parra, Dexter Fowler, Doug Fister, and Marco Estrada.
Ben Zobrist, if you're willing to spend 4-year money on a 34-year old, might actually be a contender for a fair-market offer, and so could be another familiar face in Jeff Samardzija. However, for the purposes of identifying examples at each position I have settled on two very good players who, while being pricey, would also be potentially worth it for a team gunning to become highly relevant for the next several years: Alex Gordon (turning 32 next February) and Wei-Yin Chen (turned 30 in July). Again it doesn't have to be exactly those two, but let's look at how the A's would be set up, for the next few seasons, if they invested in those two guys now on multi-year deals.
The Gordon & Chen Landscape
First off, add Gordon and you might (factoring in both offense and defense) have league average production at 5 positions along with above-average production at 4 positions:
1B - Canha-Ravelo (average)
2B - Lawrie (average)
SS - Semien (above average)
3B - Valencia (average)
C - Vogt/Phegley (above average)
LF - Gordon (above average)
CF - Burns (average)
RF - Reddick (above average)
DH - Crisp/Smolinski or Butler (average)
Your rotation looks like Gray-Chen-Hahn-Bassitt-Graveman with depth of Chavez (whom you could move to the bullpen until there's a need in the rotation), Brooks, Nolin, maybe Griffin, and soon Manaea. That's an above-average rotation and potentially a very good one.
Your bullpen starts with Doolittle-Dull-Chavez-Rodriguez and has a chance to be solidly average (if not better, given the utter unpredictability of bullpens). Overall, I would say you have a pretty darn competitive team on paper for 2016.
The beauty is that without adding anything -- other than perhaps an extension for Reddick if the money is still there, or a replacement after 2016 if it's not -- you have ample reinforcements coming up who have a great chance to be as good or better than their incumbents.
Not all prospects will thrive, or even make it, but here's how the landscape looks without even factoring in the excellent draft position the A's are in next June (I have omitted Franklin Barreto because he's still pretty far away and also I am unsure what position he'll be playing):
1B - Behind Mark Canha and Rangel Ravelo you have Matt Olson and Renato Nuñez
2B - Behind Brett Lawrie (under contract through 2017) you have Joey Wendle, Chad Pinder and then Mikey White
SS - Behind Marcus Semien (under contract through 2020) you have Yairo Muñoz and then Richie Martin
3B - Behind Danny Valencia (under contract through 2017) you have Matt Chapman (and possibly Ryon Healy)
C - Behind Stephen Vogt (under contract through 2019) and Josh Phegley (under contract through 2020) you have Jacob Nottingham
COF - Behind Alex Gordon and Josh Reddick, Jake Smolinski and Mark Canha are already in the big leagues, while Olson and Nottingham are potentially in the COF mix
SP - Your front 5 are all under contract through at least 2019, and coming up behind Brooks and Nolin, you have Sean Manaea and then Dillon Overton, Daniel Mengden, and several other lottery tickets at A and AA who are hoping to breakout.
In other words, add a quality LFer and SP, on 4-year deals, now and you might have laid enough groundwork to sit back and let it ride for the next 4 years without needing to go out and spend significant money in order to be highly competitive.
Paging grover And Taj Adib!
But is this in any way realistic? The A's do have a lot of payroll flexibility right now, but do they have enough to add free agents at the level of an Alex Gordon and a Wei-Yin Chen? If so, would this preclude a Reddick extension or could they manage all three if they surrounded them with young players who were both good and cheap -- as is the hope, should half of the aforementioned prospects pan out the way the A's believe they will.
I will lean on grover, Taj Adib, Jeremy F. Koo, and others knowledgeable in the area of payroll, to weigh in (Chen?) on what, of this, the A's could afford to do and how it would look as some of the current players reach arbitration. It's definitely a significant investment, but at the same time it essentially represents 4 years' worth of signings -- just front-loaded to set the team up an extended run of legitimate contention.