Why don’t the San Francisco Giants lock up ace Tim Lincecum to a long-term contract?
Since the end of his 2008 Cy Young campaign, I have been answering the above question to more people that I can remember.
Now, with another stellar season almost halfway done, and with Lincecum among the leaders in almost every pitching category, that question is once again finding its way into many a conversation.
Before this season started, the Giants signed the 24-year-old phenom to a paltry $650,000 contract. To anyone who looks at that number, it looks like the Giants are both taking advantage of the biggest steal ever while also being the biggest idiots for only signing him to a one-year deal.
This article is an attempt to explain the reasons, from both sides, that the Giants signed him for such a low price, and why it might happen again after 2009.
The Giants probably want to commit the money, but they reserve more flexibility if something should happen to Lincecum, whether it is an injury or some freak of nature regression.
Lincecum (and his people) would go for a long-term deal if they wanted financial security. But since he has only shown that he can get better, by going year-to-year, they can maximize the amount of time he goes to arbitration.
Since every new contract has to be at least 80 percent of the year’s past, he stands to make a lot of money.
The system of arbitration and player rights is so complicated, probably because it is the oldest sport in the country as well as the only sport that has a fully developed and utilized minor-league system.
Let’s start at the beginning.
When Tim Lincecum graduated from Liberty High School in Renton, Wash., in 2003, he entered the draft and was drafted in the 48th round by the Chicago Cubs. As per the draft rules, he chose not to sign with the Cubs and instead proceeded to pitch at the University of Washington.
If a player is drafted, he has the option to sign with a team, or to not sign and go to college. If the player chooses to go to college, they are not eligible until after three years in school or until they are 21 years old.
After his junior year with the Huskies, he was again draft eligible and entered his name in 2005. That year, he was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 42nd round.
But once more, he failed to sign and went back to Washington for his senior year.
Lincecum came off a Golden Spikes Award-winning senior year and was drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Giants, which was a full 41 rounds higher than his spot a year before. He signed with the team on June 30, less than a month after the draft and two weeks after his 21st birthday.
San Francisco shelled out a then-record $2.025 million signing bonus to sign the young pitcher, which was broken when they signed teenage sensation Angel Villalona to a $2.1 million bonus less than a month later.
Under league rules, after a player is drafted, he is under team control for six years.
That means Lincecum is under team control until 2012, and cannot become an outright free agent until then.
After three years, or two if he obtains Super Two status, which Lincecum did, the remainder of the years (until the original six are up) are a player’s arbitration years. This means that the team has the exclusive right to offer a contract.
Here’s where it get’s tricky. One might look to fellow Giant youngster Matt Cain, who was locked up through his arbitration years in 2007 by signing a $9 million deal that runs through 2010, with an option for 2011. Cain makes a reasonable $2.65 million this year, and will make $4.25 million next year.
So why can’t Lincecum be locked up for a similarly priced contract?
Both sides have an argument for this question, and they both make sense.
From the Giants' side, it’s an issue of committing too much money before they know what they have. With Cain, who broke in as a 20-year old rookie with a big fastball and a lot of potential, they locked up a young prospect for relatively low money.
Think of it this way: If Cain breaks out (like he did this season), he’s still locked in through his arbitration years at a reasonable price. Even if he wins 20 games this year and 20 games next year, San Francisco can still keep him under control in 2011 for only $6.25 million.
The risk is if he breaks down. Say the Giants signed Jonathan Sanchez to a similar deal, only to see his production plummet. Then they would be on the hook for the rest of his salary (see Russ Ortiz and his $48 million buyout).
It comes down to the Giants locking up a promising arm for a few years without having to negotiate a new contract. They might overpay, but usually the long-term deals are reserved for the ones that aren’t going to be busts.
For Lincecum, his people are waiting for another year like this year. By holding out, they can hold the threat of bolting for free agency and commanding a premium price for his services. Also, by going year-to-year, they can gauge their arbitration figures by the free-agent contracts given to pitchers with similar statistics.
So there you have it. The Giants are not ignorant or dumb. Lincecum is not money-mongering. It just works out for both teams that this is how it will probably play out.
Giant fans, know this: The San Francisco front office will pay whatever it takes, I guarantee it, to keep Lincecum after his arbitration years are up. If it ends up costing CC Sabathia money, then that’s what it will cost.
The Giants know they have something special, and they didn’t nickname him “The Franchise” without reason.
In the same vein, I sincerely believe that Lincecum wants to stay in San Francisco. He’s completely devoid of an ego, as far as he has shown so far. He might ask for some money, but after the level he has performed at to begin his career, he’s more than entitled to that.
At the end of the day, Lincecum is a Giant and will be until at least 2012. After that, the front office will have a very expensive decision to make, but I believe that he will remain with the team for a long while post-2012.