Inside Pitch: What is the future of the Big Three?

The Yankees have reportedly already asked about their availability and the rest of the league is lining up behind them for a chance to acquire Mulder, Hudson or Zito. But will the A's break up their star trio? <i>Inside Pitch</i> takes a look at what GM Billy Beane might do this pivotal off-season.

The rumors have already started out of New York. They will persist throughout the off-season and likely come from a few other cities, as well.

Even with the late season 2004 collapse of the Athletics' "Big Three" starting pitchers -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito -- teams all around baseball would love to have any of the trio.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in the first couple days after his team was beaten by the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, reportedly told his baseball people to call the Arizona Diamondbacks about acquiring Randy Johnson and call the A's about Hudson or Zito.

The likelihood of the A's trading any of their three aces is remote for the following reasons:

1. It's been the M.O. of general manager Billy Beane to wait until his young stars become free agents, get every game (or start) possible out of them, let them sign with other teams, and get the draft picks for them. That was the story with Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada.

2. The A's will make a legitimate effort to re-sign Hudson, their bulldog and staff leader. Hudson is next in line to become a free agent, after the 2005 season. Mulder and Zito are signed through 2005, and the A's hold a team option on both for 2006.

3. The shocking way Mulder unraveled the final month causes uncertainty that previously never existed with him. The A's hope and think and believe Mulder will return to his old form and not turn into a Steve Blass. But they don't know for absolute certain -- the way they did in previous years -- what they will get out of Mulder. This makes Hudson and Zito more needed to lead the staff.

While it is true Zito was dabbled in trade scenarios during the first half this year, when Zito was wildly inconsistent, conventional wisdom is that other teams called Beane and the A's GM was simply curious what the trade market was for the 2002 Cy Young winner.

Few expect Zito to remain the dominant pitcher he was in 2002, year in and year out, but most expect him to still be a front-line starter for years to come.

Of course, the A's know they can't afford to sign all three to long-term contracts. The most likely scenario remains the A's sign Hudson now, wait another year, look at performance and health, and decide whether they will try signing Zito or Mulder.

Other Off-Season Whispers

--2B Jeff Kent, whom the A's tried to obtain in a trading-deadline swap with Houston, only to be denied because of the additional payroll, became a free agent last week. But don't expect the A's to pursue Kent. They have Mark Ellis returning from a torn labrum to play second base, and Kent's asking price will be outside their means. The A's would have loved to rent Kent for two months, then get two free agents for him after he filed for free agency.

--Ron Washington, the valuable infielders and third-base coach, was signed for the 2005 season. Washington was being pushed for a manager's job but didn't get any interviews, and it's doubtful another managerial opening would open this late. The A's admit there's nobody who could replace Washington for his value working with infielders.

--LHP Mark Redman and LHP Arthur Rhodes are the two pitchers the A's would most like to trade. The primary reason is their contracts, $4.25 million for Redman and $3.1 million for Rhodes, which is also the reason it would be most difficult.

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