Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Freaky Should the Giants Get?

We all know Tim Lincecum is a total freak of nature, hence his nickname. The 5’11”, 163-pound righty has been dominant since his days at the University of Washington. With an unorthodox delivery that has consistently served him well, he was drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft, tenth overall, to the San Francisco Giants. He made a handful of starts that year in low-A, then high-A ball before the end of the minor league season. He skipped AA altogether and the Giants put him on the fast track by opening his 2007 season in AAA where he struck out over 13 batters per nine innings and had a microscopic ERA of 0.29. He was called up after only 62 career minor league innings and has been a true talent at the big league level ever since. In only five Major League seasons, he’s won two Cy-Young awards and been an All-Star four times, has a career 2.98 ERA, has toppled the 200-inning mark in each of his four full seasons, has a career record of 69-41 (which would be undoubtedly better if his offense would pick him up occasionally) and averages nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

What does this mean? He’s an ace in every sense of the word. So with Tim’s deal set to expire at the end of the 2013 season, the Giants would, unsurprisingly, like to lock him up to a contract more long-term. But how long term should the Giants and Lincecum be looking? Well, the Giants are apparently comfortable with something in the five-year neighborhood while Mr. Lincecum would like something that looks more like seven or eight years in length. Apparently, Tim and his representatives just rejected a 5-year, $100+ million deal. Should the club cave to Tim because of his effectiveness or are his demands unrealistic? There are arguments to be made for each party.

Lincecum will argue that the performance he’s mustered in his short career have been incredibly valuable to the organization. This is completely true. He’s anchored a staff that has had to be dominant just to keep the team contending due to their offensive limitations. In fact, without Tim’s fantastic 2010 postseason play, there’s no conceivable way the team would have won the World Series. He went 4-1 that postseason with a 2.43 ERA, kept his WHIP under 1.0 and struck out 10.5 batters per nine. At a time when having an ace to guide a team is most critical, Lincecum delivered. He projects as a first-ballot hall of famer, should he continue his success, stay free of disastrous injury and age gracefully. He’s routinely a top-five pitcher in the league and one of the best at his craft. Most of all, Giant fans love the guy and he puts people in the seats everywhere he pitches. His jersey sells and he’s the face of the franchise. All considered, Lincecum will make a solid, reasonable case for a 7-8 year deal.

San Francisco and Brian Sabean, on the other hand, probably aren’t too thrilled about a deal of this length. Long-term pitching contracts are often problematic. As anyone who studies baseballs knows, pitchers are a volatile bunch. They get hurt much more often than hitters and even a small drop in velocity, say as a pitcher ages, can be extremely detrimental. While it isn’t a perfect comparison, Barry Zito’s deal, signed in 2007, has been a complete and total bust. The Giants gave Zito a 7-year, $126 million deal, one which will do down as one of the worst contracts ever. Zito had won a Cy Young with Oakland and was a two-time All-Star before coming across the Bay Bridge. In his five seasons with the Giants, he’s 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA, meaning he’s barely even a legitimate fifth starter in a big league rotation. He had been 102-63 with Oakland, so the deal seemed legit, but hasn’t panned out. This has understandable made the Giants gun-shy of going down that road again. Of course, there are also deals to pitchers such as Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, AJ Burnett, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and others to add to the “horrible contract heap,” meaning Zito isn’t simply an outlier. Then again, there are deals like CC Sabathia’s (8-years, $182 million) that appear to be panning out nicely. There isn’t, however, a bevy of 8-year pitching contracts that actually appear to be worth the money, making Sabathia nearly one-of-a-kind. Also, Sabathia (6’7”, 290lbs) and Lincecum (not even 6-foot) are different types of pitchers, which won’t help Tim and his agents if they try to use Sabathia’s contract as a comparison. The last factor on the Giants’ side is the fact that Lincecum’s velocity and strikeouts have been down over the last two seasons while his walks and hits allowed have been up slightly. This doesn’t mean he isn’t good anymore; rather, he just hasn’t been quite as elite.

So where does the middle lie? Often times, these deals work themselves out. The team offers a deal in one area and the player demands another. The answer often appears in the middle somewhere as both sides, if they truly want to stay together, will have to compromise. I absolutely do not see the Giants doing an 8-year deal, but they may have to commit more to Tim than five years if they wish to keep him. I’d argue for something in the 6-year, $128 million range, with a mutual option for a seventh year at about $23 million. This would keep The Freak in San Francisco through his early 30’s without locking the team into something they’ll regret for nearly a decade. A deal like this makes sense for everyone involved, including the fan base. While a deal before the season is unlikely, this needs to happen sooner rather than later to cement the Giants’ future success and keep their ace a happy camper.

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