Friday February 12th, 2010

The arb-pocalypse has been averted: Tim Lincecum has settled with the Giants. Lincecum, the two-time defending National League Cy Young award winner who stood to set a first-arbitration-year record had he been awarded his $13 million filing amount, has signed a two-year deal worth $23 million. The deal is an unexpected victory, albeit a minor one, for the San Francisco Giants, who countered Lincecum's filing amount with a low-ball offer of $8 million.

Lincecum has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons and could have invoked the "special accomplishments" clause in the colelctive bargaining agreement that would have allowed him to compare his salary not just to other players with similar service time, but to comparable pitchers regardless of seniority. Instead, under the new deal, Lincecum will earn exactly that $8 million that the Giants offered in 2010, then get his price, $13 million, in 2011, with the other $2 million coming via a signing bonus that pays him $1 million each year. It's hard to believe he would have lost his arbitration case, and if he had another Cy Young-worthy season this year, he could have received significantly more than $13 million via arbitration a year from now. From that perspective, the Giants have likely saved somewhere between $5 million and $10 million over the next two seasons by inking Lincecum now.

That's no small thing, but unless they decide to use the cost-certainty of Lincecum's next two seasons put him up for trade, it's the sum total of what they've accomplished. As a super-two player (a player eligible for arbitration after less than three full seasons), Lincecum was to be under team control but arbitration eligible four times. The Giants have bought out just two of those seasons and none of his free agency, which won't arrive until after the 2013 season. They'll still have to face potential arbitration hearings with Lincecum after the 2011 and 2012 seasons. It's tempting to believe that by suppressing his salary now, the Giants have in turn limited the rate of increase of Lincecum's salary for those last two arbitration years, but that seems unlikely. There's only so much more room above $13 million. CC Sabathia, the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, makes $23 million a year. Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, two comparable arb-eligible pitchers who signed five-year deals earlier this year, will earn $19.5 million and $20 million, respectively, in 2013. If Lincecum's next two seasons are anything like his last two, it's difficult to believe the Giants could keep his salary below, $20 million in 2013, even with a well-argued arbitration case.

If he stays healthy, Lincecum will be worth that amount. The concern with any young pitcher, and the reason the Giants likely balked at anything beyond their wimpy three-year, $37 million offer, is the risk of career-altering arm trouble. Lincecum's small stature (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) and unorthodox delivery have goosed those concerns in the past, but his durability thus far in his professional career has shown no cracks. He just turned 25 in June, meaning he's past what's known as the injury nexus for young pitchers. Still, the new deal gives Lincecum no meaningful guarantees in the event of a major injury. Had he gone to arbitration, won, then gotten hurt this year, he'd likely still have made at least that $13 million in 2011 as well, and if he gets hurt next year, he'll be in the same situation now, facing arbitration, as he would have been without this new deal.

So what's in it for Lincecum? He's likely avoided some bad press stemming from what promised to be an ugly arbitration hearing that was about to turn into a fight not so much between player and team as between the union and ownership, given the potential record award at stake. Lincecum is also making more money over the next two years than either Hernandez or Verlander will make in the first two years of their new contracts ($16.5 million and $19.5 million, respectively), both of whom signed after making less than $4 million, half of Lincecum's 2010 salary, in their first arbitration year. So, he's still ahead of the game on salary, still has those last two arbitration years in play, and will still hit free agency as scheduled at age 30, which means that despite surrendering a few million over the next two years, his long-term earning potential has not been compromised.

Perhaps the prospect of a contentious, high-profile arbitration hearing was enough to make Lincecum settle. Perhaps in giving his team some cost-certainty, he's challenging them to surround him with a winner in 2011. Maybe he just figures it's good karma not to get too greedy and that coming off a season in which he earned $650,000, an $8 million raise seemed like enough. Whatever his reasoning, Lincecum can now report to camp with a clear mind and a fat wallet, and the rest of us can go back to worrying about where poor little Johnny Damon will play this year. To be continued in 2012.

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