Tim Lincecum: Giants Ace is Too Young for Cy Young

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Tim Lincecum: Giants Ace is Too Young for Cy Young

Die-hard Giants fans really shouldn't be hoping that Tim Lincecum wins the 2008 National League Cy Young Award.

Lincecum has been stellar this year while his teammates have been terrible.  Going into the final series of the season, the Giants were a paltry 70-89, a 44% winning percentage. The 24-year-old pitcher had compiled a 17-5 record (77% win pct) while leading the majors in strikeouts (252) and ranking second in the National League in ERA (2.66).  Outstanding, yes.  Especially given his 2008 price tag of $405,000 -- less than 3% of Barry Zito's 2008 salary of $14.5 million.

Two years after signing the most lucrative deal for a pitcher in baseball history, Zito is still owed at least $101.5 million through 2014.  With Zito's inflated contract on the books, the Giants are less able to afford impact free agent hitters to improve San Francisco's dismal offense.  Luckily for the Giants, Lincecum and teammate Matt Cain are both earning far less than their market value, and Lincecum will continue to do so next year.  Cain, however, is arbitration-eligible this off season.  He'll soon have suitors willing to pay upwards of $8 million per year for his services, but baseball's collective bargaining agreement will allow the Giants to retain him in 2009 for a small fraction of that amount.  Cain made only $950,000 in 2008, but that figure will likely reach seven figures in 2009. 

Baseball's business model is such that a team retains exclusive rights to a player for his first 3 years of service in Major League Baseball.  After the third year, the team can either release the player into free agency or offer a contract.  If the player declines the offer, the team retains his rights for the following year, with his salary determined by a panel of judges through arbitration.  Arbitration can continue each year until the player completes 6 years in the league.  This model generally keeps salaries relatively low for younger players, with certain exceptions for outstanding, award-winning young talent.  Across the bay, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is notorious for intelligently and purposefully gaming the system, stocking up on cheap young players who lack the required experience for free agency or arbitration.

Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard broke the bank in arbitration last year, bringing strong, unprecendented credentials to the bargaining table. The National League Rookie of the Year, despite playing just 88 games in 2005, Howard captured the 2006 NL MVP Award in his first full season, then led the Phillies to the playoffs during a strong 2007 campaign.  Howard earned a $10 million salary in 2008 as a result of his early success and stands to win another substantial increase through arbitration if he and the Phillies are unable to agree on a contract during this offseason.  While $10 million may be a steal compared to what Howard would earn from a multi-year contract as a free agent, it's a far cry from the $355,000 and $900,000 Howard earned in his first two seasons in the league.

Lincecum becomes eligible for arbitration after next season.  Given the precedent from Ryan Howard's 2008 arbitration ruling (and perhaps Howard's 2009 arbitration ruling!), how large a contract would be awarded to a 24-year-old who is named the best pitcher in his league?  And with inevitable improvements to the Giants offense on their way this offseason, Lincecum may post even more impressive numbers in 2009.

Understandably, Giants fans are tired having nothing to hope for. While Lincecum is a fan-favorite and a freakishly impressive pitcher, it is in their best long-term interests that he does not become a Cy Young Award winner in his first full season.

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