On the second floor of Tim Hudson's waterfront house in Apollo Beach, Fla., just off the main staircase, is a cluttered trophy room. It's thick with the flotsam of a ballplayer's life: cabinets stocked with rows of autographed baseballs, dating back 10 years to Hudson's junior college days at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, in Phenix City, Ala.; myriad bobblehead dolls, mostly of teammates, two of himself; framed lineup cards and photographs. (Here is Hudson, right elbow resting on Babe Ruth's pillar in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park, on the afternoon before his eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the 2001 American League Division Series.) And on the rear wall, above a billiard table, hangs an oil painting by Vernon Wells Sr., father of the Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder, of the righthanded Hudson and lefties Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, all three mid-windup, all three wearing Oakland A's green and gold.
"Good thing I got it last season," Hudson said, smiling, to a recent visitor. Like the rest of the things in the room, it has become a relic in a quickly receding past: On Dec. 16 Hudson, who had spent all six of his major league seasons with Oakland, was traded to the Atlanta Braves; three days later Mulder, his rotationmate for five seasons, was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals. In that short span the A's dismantled their greatest weapon and reconfigured the face of the franchise. "They were our identity," says first baseman Scott Hatteberg. "Every friggin' piece of marketing we had had three players on it."
The explanation that fits on a cocktail napkin, and the one most commonly offered in the wake of the deals, was that Hudson, who'll earn $6.75 million this year before becoming eligible for free agency, and Mulder, who'll make $6 million with a $7.25 million option for '06 before hitting the market himself, had become too costly for Oakland's limited means, which provide for a payroll of about $60 million. Like a host of elite players before them--first baseman Jason Giambi and shortstop Miguel Tejada, to name two who departed after winning MVP awards--the pair was destined to leave the East Bay to sign the lucrative contracts that they had earned there.
But whereas A's general manager Billy Beane had usually been content, as in the cases of Giambi and Tejada, to wring the last years of service from his young talent and accept draft picks as compensation, he changed tracks this winter. In essence Beane preempted--to borrow a term now in vogue in foreign policy circles and favored by several members of the Oakland brain trust--an imminent financial crisis, surrendering three years' worth of dividends for immediate help. The consensus around baseball has the A's dead and buried, with preemption the cause.
"Nothing wrong with it if you're a neocon," roars Beane, who showed in Michael Lewis's 2003 best-seller Moneyball that he's equal parts earthy and wonkish.
"Preemptive is always uncomfortable for people," he continues. "But understand, if we do a move when everyone else thinks we should, we've waited too long. When you're a small-market team, an economically challenged team, and you hit bottom, it takes a long time to get out. You hit last place with a thud, not a bounce."
Oakland proceeded with the trades on the assumption that given the existing market for starting pitching and the 29-year-old Hudson's impeccable r�sum� (a 92-39 record and a 3.30 ERA in more than 1,200 innings), a contract extension was not an option. With about six weeks left in the regular season, the front office was already conceding Hudson's departure; at that point the idea of trading another of the Big Three arose almost instantly. This was a radical insight because it was the second deal, trading the 27-year-old Mulder, that was most surprising.
"The Hudson trade, there were rumors that it was likely to happen," says Canadian-born righthander Rich Harden, 23, now Oakland's No. 2 starter, who learned about the deals in a phone call from his father, Russ, while visiting family in Winnipeg. "And when the Mulder trade went down, that was a shock. I don't think anybody in a million years thought it would have happened, to get rid of both of them."
beane and his lieutenants, including assistant G.M. David Forst, believed that the roster required wholesale change to remain sustainable and competitive in the long term; only moving two premier but soon to be high-priced pitchers could accomplish that goal and forestall the talent void that would have arisen after the '06 season, by which time all three would have been gone. (It's possible that Zito, 26, who will make $4.8 million this year with a club option for $7 million in '06, will also price himself out of Oakland's budget before he hits free agency.)
Offensive players are mostly fungible, Beane believes, which is why he was content to let the likes of Giambi and Tejada walk in exchange for draft picks. But constructing a rotation entirely from free agents or low-level prospects proves either too costly or too speculative. "It's impossible to re-create a starting staff from free agency because the economics won't allow us to do it," Beane says. "An average major league pitcher in this market was anywhere between $6 and $10 million a year, and we can't afford even one of those guys at that number. We have to make sure if we lose guys, we have somebody to step in right away."