Seeking $21.5 Million

As we touched on in yesterday’s podcast, from purely an optics perspective, the San Francisco Giants need to keep Tim Lincecum on their team, and preferably for many years. It’s somewhat remarkable that a player who has only played for five seasons with his team would come to act as such a, and I hate myself for using this phrase, face of the franchise, but indeed that’s the relationship that Lincecum has with his Giants and their supporters and baseball fans in general.

Admittedly, it’s subjective, but I can’t think of any other player who has come to be such a representative of his team in so few years playing for them. I suppose you could make a case for Evan Longoria on the Tampa Bay Rays, or perhaps in a couple of years, Brett Lawrie and the Toronto Blue Jays, but I’d argue that for now, it’s Lincecum, who is certainly aided in this perception by leading his team to the World Series in 2010.

Perhaps the only thing more impressive than Lincecum’s standing is the dollar figure he’s set to receive in his third year of arbitration eligibility. As you’ve probably read or heard by now, yesterday was the deadline for teams and players to submit their arbitration figures ahead of a hearing which will take place next month. Lincecum’s representatives submitted a request for a record $21.5 million, in comparison to San Francisco’s offer of $17 million.

The $21.5 million is a record for any player with less than six years of service time and falls just short of the $22 million that Roger Clemens asked of the Houston Astros in 2005. If the Giants and Lincecum don’t come to an agreement that locks him up through a multiple year contract, it’s quite possible that whatever record he sets for the coming season gets smashed next year in his fourth year of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two player.

But what’s the actual likelihood of an arbitrator siding with Lincecum?

The Giants ace made $13 million last year as part of the two year, $23 million contract he signed with San Francisco that covered his first two years of arbitration. If we compare this salary to what comparable pitchers, like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, or Jared Weaver, made in their first two years of arbitration eligibility, we see that Lincecum has made out quite well for himself through the contract.

While Hernandez and Verlander both signed similar five year deals immediately following their first year of eligibility, Weaver went through two years of eligibility before signing his five year deal during this past season. Despite the difference, all three pitchers made something in the neighbourhood of $11 million in their first two years of arbitration eligibility.

The justification for the staggering $12 million difference is that Lincecum won two Cy Young Awards prior to even being eligible for arbitration. How much weight an arbitrator puts on this fact will go a long way in deciding the pitcher’s salary in 2012, assuming he and the Giants don’t come to an agreement prior to a hearing.

If we look at the last four years, Roy Halladay is the only pitcher in the league with as many innings pitched as Lincecum and a lower ERA. Over that same time period, he’s also first in strike out rate, second in FIP, second in xFIP, second in SIERA and second in opposition batting average. However, this success is largely brought to us through the 2008 and 2009 seasons when he put up 7.5 fWAR and 8.0 fWAR respectively, rather than the more recent 2010 and 2011 seasons when he put up 4.9 fWAR and 4.4 fWAR respectively.

Those are remarkable numbers for any pitcher, but his last two seasons take him out of the Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee realm, and back into being comparable to the Hernandez, Verlander and Weaver world. In their third year of arbitration, they were earning (in the case of Hernandez and Verlander) or will earn (in the case of Weaver) $10-$14 million.

Given how precedent is believed to be the most important factor in arbitration cases, it’s difficult to imagine Lincecum being awarded $7-$11 million more than his contemporaries, and raises a question as to why the Giants would offer a figure as high as they did, which guarantees him a $4 million raise at the very least. We took some pokes at the Giants front office yesterday, and in that same vein it would be fascinating to hear their justification for a $17 million offer.

It’s not all bad for fans in San Francisco though, as the team, perhaps in a lesson learned from the Lincecum affair, locked up third baseman, and just about the only remaining bright spot from the Giants lineup in 2011, Pablo Sandoval for all three of his arbitration eligible years for a very team friendly $17.15 million.