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The Lincecum arbitration case

The highly anticipated salary-arbitration hearing between pitcher Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants is scheduled for Friday, although the esteemed John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reports there is momentum toward a long-term contract extension that would avert a potentially contentious hearing. According to Shea, the Giants' offer was for three years and $37 million (salaries of $9.5 million, $12.5 million and $15 million from 2010-12), while Lincecum's counterproposal was for "north of $40 million" for the same three seasons.

Now, let's back up. Lincecum has submitted a 2010 salary figure of $13 million, while the Giants have countered at $8 million. If it goes all the way to a hearing, a three-person panel of arbitrators will have to choose between the two figures. Up until the moment the hearing begins, the sides can still reach an agreement.

Baseball's salary arbitration process is predicated upon comparables. On either side of the argument, the method is the same: You pick out a suitablly comparable player (or more than one), and argue why your salary proposal is in line with the industry standard for a player of comparable ability and achievements.

The problem in the Lincecum case is that there is not an obvious comparable. No player with as little service time -- roughly 2 2/3 seasons; Lincecum qualified for arbitration this year as a "super-two" player -- has ever won two Cy Young awards, as Lincecum has. The best comparable, in fact, is a highly imprecise one: Ryan Howard had already won a rookie of the year and an MVP when he won a $10 million salary as a first-year arbitration-eligible player in 2008 -- but comparing pitchers to position players is difficult.

An obvious compromise between Lincecum and the Giants would be a salary of $10.5 million -- slightly higher than Howard's, but a fair figure, since two Cy Youngs, by simple logic, would seem to trump one ROY and one MVP. That figure also happens to represent the midpoint between the two sides' respecitve proposals.

To be sure, any offer from the Giants that begins with a $9.5 million salary in 2010 was bound to be rejected outright.

But I'm not so sure Lincecum's camp wants to settle the case at all. Despite initial speculation that Lincecum's agent, Rick Thurman, might submit a salary figure as high as $20 million, or even $22 million -- to symbolize the stance that Lincecum's true comparables are decorated veterans such as CC Sabathia -- in the end he went with the safer figure of $13 million. Why? The way I saw it, it was because that figure is a very winnable one. It signaled to me that the Lincecum camp was preparing from the start to go to a hearing.

With that in mind, Lincecum probably sees his earning potential the next three seasons as more like $48 million ($13 million in 2010, $16 million in 2011 and $19 million in 2012) -- or even higher. In other words, the gap between the sides only grows larger the further out you project a potential agreement. There may be a three-year agreement to be had, but it won't be for $37 million.

The stakes Friday are high enough that Michael Weiner, the new union chief, is reportedly taking the unusual step of planning to attend the hearing. And maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, because I'm fascinated to see whether Lincecum can shatter all arbitration records, but I think it's headed to a hearing.

By Dave Sheinin  |  February 11, 2010; 12:21 PM ET
 
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Comments

Great post. I also have to think that if Lincecum wins at his hearing, he has no incentive at all to sign a deal buying out his next two arb-eligible years. He'll have financial security in the form of $13 million, so he'll have the luxury of shooting for record-shattering arbitration deals and hitting free agency as soon as possible.

Posted by: Section220 | February 12, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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