Big Three minus one?

Since the end of the season, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane has been besieged with trade offers for one -- in some cases, any one -- of his Big Three starters: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

Nothing new there. The A's starters have been the object of desire for some time now. Each is accomplished. Each is under 30.

"You're talking,'' said a rival general manager, "about three of the best 20 pitchers in the game.''

But while Beane has rebuffed such offers in the past, keeping the core of his pitching staff intact, this winter, it might be more difficult to resist the temptation.

  • After four straight postseason appearances from 2000-2003, the A's missed out on the playoffs this season, perhaps signaling the opportunity to begin a new era in Oakland.

  • The three are nearing free agency. Hudson will be a free agent after 2005, with Mulder and Zito eligible the year after next.

  • Oakland has a number of young starters poised to make bigger contributions, including -- but not limited to -- Rich Harden and Joe Blanton.

    For his part, Beane insists there's no sense of urgency to deal off any of his pitching studs.

    "The good thing is, we don't have to do anything,'' Beane said, adding that the situation is no different this offseason than any other. If the A's are presented with a deal that will improve their club, they'll make it; if they're not, they won't.

    This isn't a fire sale, or a mandate to slash payroll by moving pitching.

    But a survey of other executives and scouts through the game indicate it's more likely that Beane is far more likely to pull the trigger on a deal than in the past.

    "I think he's going to take every offer he can possibly get,'' said a rival general manager, "and make the best choice for the team. He's a creative guy. He's going to use the resources he has to keep the club afloat.''

    In the past, Beane has refused to be pressured into moving veteran players closing in on free agency. When Jason Giambi was in his final year with the A's (2001), the first baseman was never offered around.

    Two years later, when it became apparent in spring training that the A's and Miguel Tejada were far apart in negotiations and owner Steve Schott announced that an extension wasn't going to take place, Beane once more held on, rather than deal the shortstop off before losing him to free agency.

    "In Tejada's case, (Beane) knew he had (Bobby) Crosby coming,'' said another executive. "With Giambi, I think he just rode the wave and thought he could win with him that year. And he knew that the rest of the team was under his control for a while and the nucleus of the team was going to be together.''

    Now, however, the clock is ticking for the A's. While third baseman Eric Chavez agreed to a multi-year extension, the rest of the roster is either young or about to move on (outfielder Jermaine Dye, catcher Damian Miller).

    Oakland's mid-market standing means Beane doesn't have capability of retaining his own free agents -- much less the premier ones on the market.

    "Unless you're the Red Sox or the Yankees,'' said an executive from another club, "you can't sustain this forever. I think Billy's smart enough to realize that he might have to go backward a little, so than he can turn it around quicker.''

    Even without one of the Big Three, the A's are still good enough to be an above .500 team. No one expects the complete bottoming out that the A's faced in the mid-90s when the development system was stripped bare.

    "That farm system has been pretty fertile,'' said another GM with admiration.

    But in the AL West, with the Angels coming off a division title, the Rangers showing vast improvement and the Mariners committed to spending enough to regain their competitiveness, now might be a good time to move some money, stockpile prospects and get ready for another run in a season or two.

    So, who goes?

    "Realistically, Hudson is the guy to move because he only has a year left,'' said one GM.

    Hudson has the second-best winning percentage among active pitchers -- behind only Pedro Martinez.

    Zito is a former Cy Young Award-winner, who despite two relatively disappointing seasons, is still just 26 -- with two more years at affordable money ($4.8 million in 2005; $7 million in 2006). Mulder might be the most valuable of all three, with an average of 18 wins over the last four seasons. Successful, hard-throwing lefties may be the rarest commodity in the game.

    "All three are valuable,'' concludes an NL GM. "In their own way, they all bring their own pluses to the table. Anybody who can get any one -- if they are going to be dealt -- would be foolish not to try.''

    Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.