Hot Stove Report: All eyes are on Tim Lincecum and the Giants
All of baseball is invested in the outcome of Tim Lincecum's negotiations
The Angels got an excellent deal by signing starter Joel Pineiro
There's still a market for Johnny Damon, so he shouldn't consider retiring
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 Howard was 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 Cameron notes 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 prospect Buster Posey lurking should think about that.
Good catch for the Angels
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
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