Cain can be among highest-paid pitchers

A market correction looms for right-handed starting pitchers, and the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Cain could be the one who breaks new ground.

When Yadier Molina signed his $75 million extension, one rival agent called it a market correction, saying that too sizable a gap existed between the two largest contracts for catchers, Joe Mauer at $184 million and Victor Martinez at $50 million.

Well, an even bigger market correction looms for right-handed starting pitchers, and the San Francisco GiantsMatt Cain could be the one who breaks new ground.

The largest contract ever signed by a right-handed starter was the seven-year, $105 million free-agent deal that Kevin Brown landed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1998 season.

The second largest was the five-year, $91 million extension that Carlos Zambrano signed with the Chicago Cubs in August 2007.

Does anyone seriously believe that Brown and Zambrano still deserve to rank 1-2 in total value, especially when baseball is generating far greater revenue than it did in ’07 and especially ’98?

Cain, 27, deserves to be among the game’s highest-paid pitchers. The possibility of him accepting the same type of hometown discount that Jered Weaver did last season surely is diminishing, particularly when Cain knows that the next deal for his Giants teammate, right-hander Tim Lincecum, almost certainly will dwarf his own.

John Boggs, the agent for Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, already has said that Weaver’s five-year, $85 million deal is not a parallel for his client, who, like Cain, is a potential free agent.

Hamels evidently wants to enter the same territory as five other lefties who have signed deals of $120 million or more, and Cain likely seeks that level as well.

Why shouldn’t he?

It’s not Cain’s problem that Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez and Detroit Tigers righty Justin Verlander signed nearly identical five-year extensions in the $80 million range, delaying their respective free agencies until after the 2014 season.

Hernandez and Verlander would have been free agents this offseason if they had not signed those deals. And you can bet that both would have commanded outrageous money, perhaps threatening CC Sabathia’s record $161 million contract for a pitcher.

Cain is not quite Hernandez or Verlander, and he’s not quite Lincecum, either. But he’s closer to all three of those pitchers than you probably think.

Consider that Cain in each of the past five seasons:

* Is one of seven pitchers to throw 200 or more innings, joining Sabathia, Verlander, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, James Shields and Mark Buehrle.

* Is one of five pitchers to produce a sub-4.00 ERA, joining Sabathia, Halladay, Haren and Hernandez.

* Is one of four pitchers to produce 20 or more quality starts, joining Halladay, Haren and Sabathia.

Lincecum would be in the above company, but he has pitched only four full seasons, not five. Lincecum also has won two Cy Young Awards, while Cain has yet to finish higher than eighth.

Yet, their combined numbers over the past three seasons are eerily similar:

Lincecum: 44-31, 2.87 ERA, 654 2/3 innings.

Cain: 39-30, 2.97 ERA, 662 innings.

Yes, Cain’s career record is only 69-73, but that is largely due to poor run support. His career ERA-plus of 125 is the highest ever for a starting pitcher with a losing record in at least 100 decisions, according to Baseball Prospectus (ERA-plus is ERA adjusted to league and ballpark; 100 is average).

Lest anyone forget, Cain also pitched 21 1/3 innings in the 2010 postseason without allowing an earned run, helping the Giants win their first World Series in San Francisco.

Oh, and one more thing: Cain will begin his next contract at only 28. A seven-year deal would end for him at 34. Lefty Cliff Lee began his five-year, $120 million free-agent contract with the Phillies at 32.

See where this is going?

The Giants privately remain optimistic that they can lock up Cain; he already has signed two multi-year extensions with the club. But if the team gives Cain a raise from his current $15 million salary to $20 million annually, what will Lincecum then be worth per season, $25 million?

Again, not Cain’s problem.

The pressure on the Giants is coming from external sources as well; the pending sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers is another potential complication. Cain could be one of the Dodgers’ primary targets next offseason, when the team’s new owners almost certainly will spend to win back fans.

Much has been made of the possibility of the Dodgers courting Hamels, a native of San Diego. But Cain might be even more attractive as a right-handed complement to the Dodgers’ left-handed Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers would get the added benefit of sticking it to their principal division rival.

The pent-up demand for elite starters is considerable; so few have hit the market in recent seasons. True, high-revenue clubs such as the Phillies, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are hemming and hawing about staying under the luxury-tax threshold. But the combination of labor peace, industry growth and skyrocketing local TV rights fees is increasing the spending power of many clubs.

Molina, who benefited from Albert Pujols’ departure from the St. Louis Cardinals, received the third-highest guarantee for a catcher. Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a player who has battled injuries and never appeared in the postseason, recently signed a $100 million deal — one negotiated by the same agency, CAA, that represents Cain.

The Giants still could extend Cain. Perhaps he will cut them a slight break. Perhaps they will commit to him rather than Lincecum, knowing how difficult it will be to keep both.

In any case, the market is changing, and the establishment of a new standard by Cain or some other right-handed starter is overdue.

Kevin Brown signed his $105 million contract more than 13 years ago.

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