MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Lincecum case an intriguing give-and-take

Castrovince: Lincecum case an intriguing give-and-take

Lincecum case an intriguing give-and-take
The Giants and Tim Lincecum's representatives had gathered in a hearing room two years ago, the chamber doors figuratively about to be locked shut and an impartial arbiter ready to hear their disparate claims as to the pitcher's monetary worth for the 2010 season.

Mere moments before the hearing began, however, the two sides agreed to keep talking, and soon thereafter an agreement was reached without the need to get the arbiter involved.

Two years, $23 million. And in the wake of a 2010 World Series victory and two finishes among the top 10 in National League Cy Young Award voting, it certainly looks like money well spent on the Giants' part.

Now, Timmy and the Giants are at the bargaining table again, and the stakes could not be higher. Not just for the franchise and "The Freak," but the rest of the baseball world, which will undoubtedly be intrigued to see what happens if a hearing is held.

By now, you've probably heard that Lincecum has asked for $21.5 million in arbitration and that the Giants have countered with a $17 million offer. Either way, the sum would be a record for a player with fewer than six years of service time. Only Roger Clemens ($22 million in 2005) has asked for more, but he was 21 seasons into his career by that point. And no team has offered as much in arbitration as the Giants have offered Lincecum.

This is all part of a salary arbitration process that has simply gotten out of whack.

Executives across the sport -- especially in smaller markets -- have bemoaned the fact that their arbitration-eligible players are chewing up player payroll commitments like never before. The system is predicated on comparable contracts for players with similar statistics, so when the numbers rise for one guy, they rise for many. If the $10 million Ryan Howard received when he won his case against the Phillies in 2008 (when he was a "Super 2" arbitration-eligible player with only two full seasons of Major League service under his belt) caused an uproar in the industry, you can only imagine the ripple effects of a $21.5 million victory for Lincecum.

Given the Giants' history in these matters (they haven't had a case reach a hearing since 2004) and the aversion to hearings in general (according to the MLB Players Association, roughly 90 percent of arbitration cases are settled without a hearing), it would appear most likely that a compromise will be reached at some point in the next few weeks. Hearings are a notoriously undesirable circumstance for both sides, because teams essentially have to present arguments against their own players. Perhaps between now and the time the chamber doors are set to close, Lincecum and the Giants will again come to a compromise on not just a one-year but a multiyear pact.

It's a prickly situation for the Giants, though, because Lincecum, by all accounts, wants to go big or go home. There have been multiple reports that Lincecum would happily sign a one- or two-year deal that would account for his remaining arbitration years. But if the Giants want to think long-term, he has not shown interest in a more club-friendly four-year deal that would buy out a couple of his free-agent years (he's eligible after 2013). Rather, reports have indicated he's interested in something in the neighborhood of eight years.

If those reports are accurate, you can hardly fault Lincecum for his line of thinking. Nor can you fault the Giants, who are also trying to extend fellow pitcher Matt Cain in advance of his free-agent eligibility at season's end, for wanting to take a safer, more reasonable route.

All this begs the question: What is Lincecum really worth in the here and now?

Give Lincecum credit for capitalizing on the arbitration system and his absolutely stellar career to date. There is a benefit to blossoming quickly, as his bank account can (and will) attest. Even if he goes to a hearing and loses, Lincecum will make $17 million in his sixth Major League season. Not too shabby.

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out a great stat that could work in Lincecum's favor, should this matter reach the hearing stage. Do you know how many pitchers who, through their first five big league seasons, had thrown 1,000 innings, struck out 1,100 batters and had a career ERA below 3.00?

The answer would be two. Tom Seaver and Tim Lincecum.

Oh, and Lincecum has a couple Cy Young Awards to show for it. Seaver had one. He won two more in his Hall of Fame career.

When you think of Lincecum in those terms, $21 million doesn't sound so bad, does it?

But with Lincecum, there will always be concerns about his slight 5-foot-11 frame and funky delivery and how well they'll hold up over the long haul. More to the point, the Giants have to look closely at Lincecum's performance the past two seasons and wonder if he's trending in the wrong direction. Since 2009, his strikeouts per nine innings have fallen, from 10.42 to 9.79 to 9.12. And his walks per nine have risen, from 2.72 to 3.22 to 3.57.

Perhaps fastball velocity is part of the issue. In Lincecum's first Cy Young season, 2008, his average fastball was 94.1 mph, according to Fangraphs.com. In 2009, it was 92.4. In 2010, 91.3. Last season it rose to 92.3, but he threw it less often (52.9 percent of the time) than he had in any year previously. His slider and changeup percentages, on the other hand, were higher than they had been at any point in his career.

Lincecum can easily argue that a lack of run support was the reason he went a pedestrian 13-14 last year, and he's right. The Giants scored no runs for him seven times, one run six times and two runs five times. But if this thing ever comes before an arbiter, the Giants could point out that his 6.5 innings per outing from 2010-11 were a dip from the 6.85 he averaged from '08-09.

Here's another argument in the Giants' favor: the comparables. Look no further than the one-year, $15 million contract agreement the Phillies reached with Cole Hamels earlier this week. Hamels is almost the same age as Lincecum (he turned 28 in December, while Lincecum turns 28 in June) and has one full year more service time. Last year, Hamels went 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA in 216 innings, while Lincecum went 13-14 with a 2.74 ERA in 217 innings. Lincecum outpaced Hamels in strikeouts (220 to 194) but almost doubled Hamels' number of walks (86 to 44).

Even Lincecum's own teammate, Cain, has him beat in ERA (3.01 to 3.08), WHIP (1.083 to 1.239) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.87 to 2.78) over the past two seasons. Cain, unless his contract is reworked, is also set to make $15 million in 2012.

None of this is to paint Lincecum as some sort of fading star. Far from it. But when arbitration time comes, the details get nitty-gritty and the discussion sometimes gets down and dirty. Especially when a $21.5 million contract is at stake.

It seems likely that the Giants will work out some sort of a compromise with Lincecum prior to a hearing, but how far should they be willing to go in terms of years? Given the ineptitude of the offense in 2011, they can be forgiven if they feel added incentive to lock up their prime rotation pieces for as long as possible. But as the workload piles up, it's going to be interesting to see how the above stats evolve in 2012.

And yes, it's going to be interesting to learn how much Lincecum will make in 2012, too.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.