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Really Dumb Risk

Tim Lincecum
Of course it was great news when the Mariners locked Felix Hernandez up for 5 years, at a surprisingly "low" total of $78 million. The best part of the deal is that King Felix is Mariners property for a long time. Both sides gained security.

However, the deal also kept both sides from going to arbitration, and we are about to find out how much better that makes everything. That's because the most interesting arbitration case of all-time is about to go down: The San Francisco Giants vs. Tim Lincecum.

At this point, Lincecum is the Giants' version of King Felix (with apologies to Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, both great young pitchers in their own right). However, San Fran's version of the King has won back-to-back Cy Youngs. Nobody so decorated has hit arbitration, mostly because players (by the design of the system) hit it in their second or third full pro season. That's not much time to accumulate such honors, and usually it takes a little time for even elite players to become elite as well.

That's all to say that nobody is really comparable to Tim Lincecum when it comes to previous arbitration cases. The closest is the Ryan Howard 2008 hearing. Howard, 28 years old at the time, was the NL MVP in 2006, and hitting arbitration for the first time. He won his case in what was considered a landmark decision, and awarded a $10 million salary.

Lincecum has asked for $13 million, while the Giants have countered with $8 million. There is no middle ground in arbitration. The arbitrator picks a side, so it's up to Tiny Tim to convince the arbitrator that he's worth making another landmark decision over.

However, the Giants have practically paved the way to victory for Lincecum. That's saying something considering clubs historically tend to win arbitration cases (for a much more detailed look at arbitration history, check out this article at Hardball Times).

Let's stick with the comparison to Ryan Howard. Who is worth more money: a 28-year-old first baseman a season removed from an MVP award, or a 25-year-old pitcher that is the reigning Cy Young champ twice over? Even if the Cy Young is considered less of an award than the MVP, we are talking about two versus one, in succession no less, and entering arbitration as the reigning award-winner. All of those factors should be worth something.

On top of that, $10 million in 2008 is not the same as $10 million in 2010. According to historical salary data, The average salary of an MLB player was $2,944,556 at the end of the 2007 season, the most recently one completed before Howard's arbitration case. The average salary in 2009 was $3,240,000. Using these numbers as inflation statistics, awarding $10 million based on 2007 salaries would be like awarding $11,003,356.70 based on 2009 salaries. In other words, a player equivalent to the 2008 Ryan Howard would probably earn $11 million in arbitration this year.

Therefore, it is up to Tim Lincecum to argue why he is worth $2 million more than 2008 Ryan Howard, and up to the Giants to convince the arbitrator why he is worth $3 million less than that. Again, there is no middle ground. One side will win.

Even if an arbitrator decides that Lincecum is asking for too much money, how in the world are the Giants going to make a case that he is worth only $8 million? What are they going to say in that room, with Lincecum there to hear every word, that backs up their stance?

If I were the Giants, especially after seeing the deals Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander got this offseason, I would have given him $13 million without much thought, if that's what negotiating came down to. However, realistically, Lincecum is probably willing to settle for a little less. $11-12 million seems highly doable. Why are the Giants risking what looks like an ugly arbitration case waiting to happen, especially with the relatively reasonable demands made by Lincecum?

This could have been Felix, and probably would have been if Bill Bavasi was still around. He never seemed that interested in signing Felix to a long-term deal. I'm glad it's not my favorite team about to take an unnecessary risk with a young star.