Man-with-cowboy-hat Tracy Ringolsby might not be sending Michael Lews a candygram this Christmas (good thing, too, because in a fistfight between Ringolsby and Tabitha Soren there would be no winners, except for perhaps the American people), but that doesn’t mean the Rocky Mountain News columnist can’t give credit when its due to Oakland’s Billy Beane.

In December, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane traded Tim Hudson, who has won more games than any other major-league pitcher the past four seasons, to the Atlanta Braves for two pitching prospects and an outfield prospect. Days later, the A’s shipped Mark Mulder to St. Louis for two more pitching prospects and a catching prospect.

Suddenly, the Big Three had been reduced to one – left-hander Barry Zito. Zito remains with Oakland more out of necessity than desire. He is coming off a subpar season, so his market value is down. That means the A’s can keep him around and see if he can re-establish his value by midseason, then ship him elsewhere before he leaves in the fall as a free agent.

Forget for a minute all the statistical hoopla created by a book that took a very superficial look at Beane’s success in Oakland. What Beane did on those two days in mid-December underscore what sets him apart from so many of his peers.

Beane always is looking ahead for an edge, so instead of waiting for the A’s to crumble because most of the heart and soul of their recent success – those three starting pitchers – became free agents and took off, Beane decided to jump-start a rebuilding project.

And he used Hudson and Mulder to help acquire part of the foundation he hopes will lead to future success – pitchers Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz and outfielder Charles Thomas from Atlanta and pitchers Danny Haren and Kiko Calero and catcher Daric Barton from St. Louis.

What Beane knew was the A’s of 2004 were competitive but not good enough to win the American League West. He also knew he would not be able to make a major addition to the roster this off-season, which meant the A’s would fall only farther off the divisional pace.

After all, defending division champion Anaheim again shelled out off-season dollars to get better. Seattle made a healthy investment in its future. And Texas’ young talent figures to be better because of the experience it gained in 2004.

So instead of getting caught up in today, Beane showed the foresight to start rebuilding before everything could fall apart. The A’s could surprise in 2005, when they hope to have a rotation in which Zito, who turns 27 in May, is the elder statesman and is joined by Meyer and Joe Blanton, both 24, and Haren and Rich Harden, both 23.

“People seem to forget that, back in 2000, Hudson, Mulder and Zito were 24, 22 and 22 when they came together for the first time,” Beane said. “Everybody said we couldn’t compete with such a young staff. Well, we won the division that year. . . . I’m not saying that these young guys are going to be that good. That would be unfair, but I’m not going to say they can’t be, either.”

It’s all part of taking a small-budget franchise and being a consistent contender.