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Hot Stove Report: All eyes are on Tim Lincecum and the Giants

If you can find someone to take a bet on who the most popular man in baseball is right now, lay your money on Brian Sabean, general manager of the Giants. There can't be one person working in a front office or for central baseball who wants them to take 25-year-old ace Tim Lincecum to arbitration. One can only imagine the pretexts people are working up to call Sabean.

A really surprising number of Sabean's peers are probably calling to congratulate him on now being the longest-tenured general manager in baseball and asking ever so nonchalantly what's going on with Lincecum.

The problem is, of course, money. Lincecum wants a $13 million contract for next year, which would be the richest ever for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility, nearly 30% more than Ryan Howardwas awarded two years ago. The Giants are offering $8 million. If the two sides can't come to an arrangement, then next month they'll argue before an arbitration panel, which will pick one of the two numbers.

No one in baseball management has any interest in allowing this to get before a panel, because, to oversimplify, the process works by precedent, which creates a ratchet effect. Howard was able to successfully argue that he deserved a record award because he had won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors and hit a lot of home runs. Lincecum will be able to argue that having won two Cy Young awards and starred in a creepy ad he's better than Howard, and thus deserves more money. If he wins, he'll then serve as precedent for some future phenom, and salaries will continue their unyielding run toward Jupiter.

Lincecum has a reasonable case, especially as he doesn't have to convince the arbitrators that he should be paid $13 million, but just that he should be paid more than $10.5 million, the midpoint between his number and the team's. This has to irritate anyone who makes a living figuring ways to pay players as little as possible. Sadly for them (and Giants fans), not only isn't it clear that Lincecum wants to sign a long-term deal, it's not clear that the club should want to sign him to one.

First, however reasonable the pitcher's claims, it's no certainty that he'll win, and not just because players have historically lost about 60 percent of these cases. (There's academic research suggesting this is caused by "excessive optimism" that "appears to be more prevalent for those who lack previous experience with the arbitration process," incidentally.)

As a rule of thumb, players make about 40 percent of their market value in their first year of arbitration. Judging Lincecum's market value is tough, but the best paid pitcher in baseball is CC Sabathia, who's signed to a deal with an annual average value of $23 million. Forty percent of that is $9.2 million. Further, baseball blogger Dave Cameronnotes that when adjusted for inflation and the rise in the league's median salary, the $1.5 million that Roger Clemens was awarded in 1988, his first year of arbitration eligibility, was worth the equivalent of $7.9 million today -- and he had even better credentials than Lincecum, having won an MVP as well as two Cy Youngs. Add in that the idiosyncratic ways of the process itself will allow the team to use pitcher's herb-loving ways and the fact that he's won "just" 33 games* over the last two years against him, and the Giants could well win.

*I don't think that means anything any more than you do, but we aren't arbitrators.

The sounder argument against locking Lincecum down, though, may be precedent. Last year he had a adjusted ERA of 176, a big number. Since 1947 only 10 pitchers have bettered it at 25 or younger while pitching 200 or more innings. Still... another list would comprise the 22 seasons since 1947 in which a pitcher 25 or younger has run up an adjusted ERA within 15 points of 176. Not counting the five active pitchers, the men on that list are Vida Blue, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, Mark Prior, Johnny Antonelli, John Candelaria, Roger Clemens, Dick Ellsworth, Herb Score, Ewell Blackwell, Allan Anderson, "Sudden" Sam McDowell, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton.

These pitchers were terrific through age 25, with a cumulative 3.08 ERA, and terrific after, with a 3.39. There are a lot of burnouts among them, though, and if you except Clemens, Seaver and Carlton, they pitched about as many innings after age 25 as through it. Given his health, Lincecum is on pace for the Hall of Fame. But you could have said the same of Appier, Prior and Saberhagen at his age. Pitchers will just kill you.

Whatever the outcome of all this, the most lasting lesson may be that teams should be real careful about when they bring up top farmhands. The Giants promoted Lincecum on May 6, 2007, when they were 16-14 on the way to a 91-loss season. If they had waited about a week he wouldn't be eligible for arbitration at all right now. Anyone wondering why the team would bring back vaguely adequate catcher Bengie Molina for another season when they have top 10 prospectBuster Posey lurking should think about that.

Joel Pineiro is a mystery. Before last year he was a wholly generic pitcher most notable for consistently pitching below both his ability and his own numbers, running up ERAs much worse than those implied by his strikeout, walk and home run rates. Last spring he proclaimed the virtues of a new mystery sinker ("Trust it. Throw it."), just the sort of thing every generic pitcher does while waiting to play games that count, and the world awaited another five-plus ERA. Then the strangest thing happened -- he had, in a way, the most remarkable year of any Cardinals starter.

The 3.49 ERA in 214 innings was the least of it. Pineiro walked 1.14 men per 9, becoming just the 19th pitcher since integration to show such fine control. More impressively, he threw the heaviest ball in the game, leading the majors with a 2.54 ground ball:fly ball ratio. (Derek Lowe was the only other pitcher above 2.03.) The mystery sinker worked, Pineiro's career was redeemed, and he just signed with the Angels for $16 million over two years, barely more than decent closer Jose Valverde got from the Tigers last week. The Angels, who hardly needed it, just caught a bargain.

Pineiro can't be quite as good as he showed last year. (When you walk a man per game and get two grounders for every fly ball, people call you Mr. Maddux.) Still, it isn't as if this came from nowhere. Pineiro, 31, came up with the Mariners a decade ago and pitched well and sometimes brilliantly for them until a 2004 elbow injury that seemed to cost him a bit of life off his pitches. It may have taken him a few years to adjust to a new style, but that's better than what happens to many pitchers, who never adjust at all. He would have been worth more per year for more years

Poor Johnny Damon! He can get a pro wrestling gig (really) but baseball has nothing for him. He's so sad about the whole thing that he's now claiming he may just up and retire. Per Bob Klapisch, a friend wants credulous general managers and the public to know that far from being desperate to play for any team with a pair of cleats and a few bucks, Damon, 36, "is completely in the family mode right now."

Quite so, surely, but let's think about this. Take the contenders, and would-be or sort-of contenders, who had the worst OPS out of left field last year. The Mariners now have Milton Bradley, the Cubs are paying a bit too much to Alfonso Soriano to think about replacing him, and the Diamondbacks have a good young player in Conor Jackson... It goes on like that, with most every contender either having a good, promising or pricey player fielding the position. There are four exceptions: The Tigers, Reds, Braves and Yankees.

Four teams makes a market, especially when Scott Boras works for you. All four are at or within a couple million dollars of their theoretical payroll limit, but even strapped teams (to say nothing of the Yankees) can usually scrounge up a few million for the right player, and as a very good player who's even more famous than he is good, Damon is everyone's right player. He seems a very safe bet to do at least as well as Bobby Abreu did last year, when he signed for $5 million, and nothing's wrong with that. He is, after all, about exactly as good as Abreu.

Phil Dale grew up a fan of the Big Red Machine, which would be nothing unusual save for where he was born: Melbourne. As a young pitcher he watched his team on videotapes, chased down who knows where, and saw himself playing in the unimaginably distant major leagues. He would go on to be the first Australian ever to win a four-year baseball scholarship to an American school and pitch four years in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, in the second of which he saw Craig Shipley become the first Australian to play in the majors in 85 years. Since then, 15 more have made it.

Dale has traveled the world as a scout for the Braves over the last two decades and has no doubt what does most to inspire players on the obscure fringes of baseball. "It's the opportunity that major league baseball represents, to play in the major leagues," he says. "I'm a firm believer in that. It's that dream."

As far from the majors as they now seem, that dream has done some work on players like Stepan Havlicek. With the 16-year-old left-hander having signed with the Tampa Bay Rays this week, that's now nine natives of the Czech Republic who have signed with major league clubs, according to Clive Russell of MLB's London office. One of them may become the first from that country to play in the majors. Even If it's none of them, eventually it will be someone, and he'll be followed by others. Czechs may play for pennant winners and world champions, as Australians have done. They may make lives in the major league game, as men like Dale and Shipley -- currently the Red Sox's vice president for international scouting -- have done. Whatever they do, they'll make baseball a bit richer.

If you want one reason to be really optimistic about baseball's future, it's the game's increasing international reach. Baseball may never be as strong in Italy and South Africa as it is in the Dominican Republic and Japan, but it doesn't have to be for such places to make immense contributions to the sport. Consider Dutch brilliance in soccer and kickboxing and then imagine them applying themselves even more than they already have to honkbal. If that and the mere idea of a 16-year-old from Brno, baseball capital of the Czech Republic, making his way to Australia to begin a professional apprenticeship at their baseball academy don't wash you clear of at least a bit of cynicism over drugs and money, what will?

• This was a week of real pitching bargains, and one of the best may have been the slightly absurd two-year, $5 million contract to which the Rangers signedColby Lewis, who will return from a two-year trip to Japan. There are different schools of thought on the quality of Japanese baseball, but you can discount his statistics mightily and still be impressed by an 8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a fastball and backdoor slider that, per this site, were routinely coming in at 95 mph. Even if Lewis is just a fourth starter here, that's a screaming deal for the money.

Doug Davis'new deal with the Brewers, which guarantees the 34-year-old lefty just $5.25 million, strikes me as another potential bargain. Yes, crafty lefties of his age who issue as many walks as he does are lousy bets on paper, but there's something to be said for having performed, and there are just 22 pitchers in baseball who have bettered both the 542 innings and 110 adjusted ERA that Davis has put up over the last three years. He could implode and be out of baseball by the end of the year, which is why he came so cheap, but I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have him than someone like Ben Sheets or Rich Harden.

Felix Hernandez's new five-year, $78 million contract is something I could write about at much greater length, but it's enough to say that while every reservation expressed above about signing Tim Lincecum long-term could in theory apply to King Felix, there isn't a young pitcher in whom I'd rather invest as heavily. The guy throws an 88 mph changeup and you can come away from watching a game like this one utterly convinced that if you docked him 10 mph on all his pitches, he wouldn't lose that much. Along with Lincecum and Zack Greinke, Hernandez is one of three pitchers you really need to see in person this year if you can.

• If you thought that Jim Edmonds'threatened comeback at age 39 was random, note that Preston Wilson, 35, is fit to join him and that the Rockies have actually signedPaul Lo Duca and Jay Payton, both 37.

• Were you wondering what Adolphus A. Busch IV of the formerly Cardinals-owning Busch family is thinking about Mark McGwire? So was I! Per a press release:

"Mark McGwire made a 'personal' decision to use illegal drugs. He deliberately cheated the game and stole its most coveted records along the way. He stonewalled Congress. He even lied to the Cardinal fans and the media by his now infamous quote of February 2005, 'Once and for all, I did not take steroids or any other illegal substances'.

"McGuire [sic] has chosen to come out of the closet at the perfect time -- Alongside a manager who also refuses to be honest, to the fans or to the game itself."

As I wrote in this space last week, I have no problem at all with McGwire, but I'll admit to wondering if Busch doesn't have a bit of a point with that last sentence there.

• You don't often get to say this, but I think Joe Posnanski missed something here. All the factors he lists as having contributed to the great offensive boom era no doubt did so, but count me with those who think it was mainly the ball that was juiced.

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