Lincecum's arbitration demands leave Giants with tough decision

MLB Tim Lincecum _20100120021039_JPG
National League All-Star Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants pitches during the 2009 MLB...
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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

The last time a pitcher won back-to-back Cy Young Awards within the first four seasons of his career, Roger Clemens was earning praise for his rigorous winter weight training.

In the next season — 1988 — he earned $1.35 million.

So here comes Tim Lincecum more than two decades later, answering Texan brawn with West Coast chill.

He’s asking for about 10 times as much — a cool $13 million, to be exact.


  • Tim Lincecum and the Giants going to arbitration is ...
    • Just business
    • A bad sign for his future in San Fran

Is the wiry right-hander worth all of that money? Within the parameters of this screwy baseball business, he actually is.

My legal advice isn’t worth 13 cents, but if I were responsible for the Giants’ payroll, a settlement — even on Lincecum’s terms — would be far preferable to meeting him in a hearing room.

Make no mistake: With his precedent-setting request, Lincecum is trying to scramble baseball’s financial DNA. He’s a threat to overhaul the salary structure. Those who frame such struggles in revolutionary terms might even suggest that he is taking on The Man.

What, you expected something different from a 25-year-old undersized, long-haired pitcher known as The Freak?

In its simplest form, baseball’s salary arbitration system — which determines pay for many players with between three and six years of service — is a matrix of comparisons. Bob is better than Joe but not as good as Pete, so his salary should be in the middle of those two. You get the idea.

No surprise to you, I’m sure, that the system isn’t set up for players to win big. Think back to 2004. Eric Gagne was coming off a Cy Young season. He was in the middle of his save streak. He had Scott Boras, the biggest agent of them all, in his corner. He asked for $8 million. The Dodgers filed at $5 million. The team won.

Still, clubs try to avoid hearings in almost every case. It’s not much fun to list an employee’s shortcomings while he is sitting in the room — particularly when that person happens to be your best and most marketable player.

But this isn’t about Tim Lincecum’s self esteem. This isn’t even about a few million bucks in either direction on the Giants’ payroll. The impact of this case could go far beyond San Francisco.

Right now, the number on everyone’s mind is the $10 million that Ryan Howard received from the Phillies in 2008. At present, that is the record for a first-time eligible player. Lincecum is poised to break it. If he does, he will, in time, elevate the market overall. That would be a big victory for the union membership, with only two seasons left on the current collective bargaining agreement.

That’s one reason why the Giants should be wary of leaving the outcome in someone else’s hands: If they lose, they will have to answer to everyone else.

And Lincecum is the kind of guy who can win.

He is a study in what happens when there aren’t clear, recent comparisons to be drawn. Take a moment to consider what he’s done: He is 40-17 in his career, including 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA during the twin Cy Young seasons. The Giants have a 163-204 record — or .444 winning percentage — on the sad occasions when Lincecum has not taken the mound for them since his debut on May 6, 2007.

That’s a pretty clear demonstration of his value.

Yes, elite hitters traditionally earn more than elite pitchers. (There were no pitchers among the seven highest-paid players in 2009, according to the USA Today salary database.) But at the risk of oversimplifying a nuanced comparison, isn’t it significant that Lincecum has won the top pitching award twice — while Howard has one National League MVP?

Lincecum has done on the mound what Howard has at the plate — at a difference of one trophy. And if you value that additional hardware at roughly $500,000, well, you’ve hit on the pressure point of this negotiation.
MLB Tim Lincecum _20100120022928_JPG

Tim Lincecum is charting a new path for MLB finances.
Jed Jacobsohn

Under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, the proceedings follow a final-offer format. If the arbitrator feels the proper value is one penny over the midpoint, the player wins. If it’s one penny under, the team wins. There is no middle ground.

In this case, Lincecum is asking for $13 million. The Giants filed at $8 million. So, the midpoint is $10.5 million. If there is a settlement prior to the hearing — as occurs in the vast majority of cases — it will probably be within range of that figure.

For the time being, though, Lincecum’s agents will see that target number — $10,500,000.01— in their sleep. If they can convince an arbitrator that the second Cy Young is worth more than half a million bucks, they will score a landmark victory.

(As an aside, Lincecum qualified for arbitration this year by 10 service days. If the Giants had called him up only a little later in the 2007 season, they could have paid him around $1 million this year. But Russ Ortiz had a bum elbow, and they had to have another starter. So those 10 days might cost the Giants around $10 million — and perhaps more. All for a team that finished 71-91.)

Whether due to bad foresight or rotten luck, the Giants now find themselves in a much more anxious position than their employee. Even if he “loses,” Lincecum will walk away with $8 million. That would be a record for a first-time eligible pitcher, breaking the mark set last year by Jonathan Papelbon.

The hearing — if it takes place — would be next month. (Sadly, no cameras or reporters in the room.) Teams can submit evidence of off-field conduct, so the Giants could bring up the marijuana case that Lincecum settled — ironically — Tuesday.

He resolved the charges by paying $513. Not a major inconvenience for someone who might make more than $15,000 per out this year.

Now, Lincecum is effectively a plaintiff once again. And if the Giants underestimate his ability to make them look foolish, well, they haven’t been watching the games.
Tagged: Phillies, Giants, Ryan Howard, Tim Lincecum

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