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January 14, 2010

Contractual Matters

Freakonomics

by Jeff Euston

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Everything about Tim Lincecum is unique. The delivery. The dog named Cy. The hair. And now, his arbitration case.

Lincecum is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this offseason, and he enters the process with a resume like no one before him. Two full seasons. Two National League strikeout titles. Two All-Star Game selections, including a start. And, most impressive, two Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in the National League.

Lincecum and his agent, Rick Thurman, have indicated he is not interested in a multi-year contract with the San Francisco Giants, preferring instead to go year-by-year, signing one-year contracts until he's eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. That sets the stage for what could be a record-setting salary award this offseason, a test case for the value of "special accomplishment" by a pitcher.

In most cases, the arbitration panel considers the player's performance and leadership, the club's record and attendance, and salaries of comparable players in his service-time class and the class one year ahead of him.

But there's a catch. The service-time limit for "comps" does not apply if the player can show "special accomplishment," which may include All-Star Game appearances, awards, or post-season performance. For Lincecum, this exception allows him to slip the surly bonds of the six- and low seven-figure salaries earned by most players with similar time in the majors, comparing himself instead to the highest-paid starting pitchers in the game. For the Giants, the exception threatens to blow a hole in the budget for payroll. For the game's other 29 owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Lincecum case could set a new benchmark for salaries for players in arbitration.

For both sides, the high stakes place a premium on the process of determining the salary figure to submit to the three-person arbitration panel. If Lincecum shoots too high with his request, the panel could find the more reasonable route is to award him the Giants' lesser figure. But if the Giants come in with a low offer, they run the risk of making even a request of $10 million or more appear to be the reasonable number. With the two sides exchanging figures next Tuesday, both camps are deep into strategy sessions, deciding how to play their hands. How much does he want? How much will they offer? How do you find a comparable for a player nicknamed "The Freak"?

The record salary for a first-time arbitration-eligible starting pitcher is Dontrelle Willis, who settled with Florida for $4.35 million after leading the NL in victories, shutouts, and complete games in 2005. Willis, the runner-up in the 2005 Cy Young vote, also had two All-Star selections and a Rookie of the Year Award.

His figure was matched last season by Philadelphia's Cole Hamels, who earned $4.35 million as part of a multi-year contract signed in the wake of his magical 2008 postseason, when he was selected as the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and World Series.

But both pitchers settled in January before submitting salary figures in anticipation of arbitration hearings. Moreover, Lincecum's numbers and hardware are superior to those of the platform seasons of Willis and Hamels, so they're hardly ideal for comparison.

Boston's Jonathan Papelbon got $6.35 million last offseason, avoiding arbitration in his first time eligible. Though he was a three-time All Star and had closed out a World Series victory, Papelbon had never received a vote in the Cy Young balloting. And, like all relievers, his contribution in terms of innings pitched pales in comparison to top-line starters like Lincecum, so he is not a fit.

Two starting pitchers can approach Lincecum in terms of special achievements at such an early point in their careers: Bret Saberhagen and Roger Clemens. But, obviously, baseball's revenues and salary structure were far different in the 1980s than they are today. And, unlike Lincecum, Clemens was actually not able to file for arbitration as a player with two-plus years of big-league experience.

Saberhagen qualified for arbitration after the 1985 season, with a Cy Young award and a World Series MVP in tow. He filed for $925,000, which would rank 22nd on the list of the highest-paid starting pitchers in the game in 1986. He won his case against the Royals, receiving a raise of 478 percent from $160,000 to $925,000. While that jump sounds impressive, Willis' raise from $378,500 in 2005 to $4.35 million in 2006 represented an increase of 1,050 percent. A similar pay raise for Lincecum would push him from $650,000 to $7.475 million.

Clemens capped his dominant 1986 season with both the AL Cy Young and MVP award, but he fell 30 days shy of qualifying for arbitration, a victim of the change to baseball's labor agreement increasing the service time required from two full years to three for the 1987 season. When the Red Sox made Clemens a one-year offer of $460,000, Clemens left spring training and held out, incurring a $1,000 a day fine. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth personally intervened in the negotiations with the two sides, and Clemens ultimately agreed to a two-year contract worth $2 million. The deal made Clemens baseball's 43rd highest-paid starting pitcher for 1987 and the sixth highest-paid for 1988. Not coincidentally, baseball's next labor deal instituted the Super Two provision, extending eligibility to the top 17 percent of players with at least two years of experience, beginning in 1991.

Recent Cy Young performances do not offer ideal comparisons, either. Besides Lincecum, the last eight pitchers to win the award (Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, and Bartolo Colon) did so in the middle of multi-year contracts or, in Carpenter's case, six months after signing a long-term extension.

Santana, the most recent multiple winner, parlayed his 2004 award into a four-year, $39.75 million deal from the Twins that paid him $9 million in 2006-the year he won his second award-and $12 million for 2007. Santana and Sabathia are now the two highest-paid pitchers in baseball at average annual values of $22.9 million and $23 million, respectively. That suggests a range of anywhere from $9 million to $23 million for Lincecum's request, depending on how bold he and his agents are feeling.

However, anything less than a eight-figure request might not be enough, if recent filings by the most decorated position players with special achievements are any guide.

Albert Pujols reached arbitration for the first time after the 2003 season with a long list of special accomplishments: two All-Star selections, two Silver Slugger awards, a batting championship, a Hank Aaron Award, and two consecutive second-place finishes in the NL MVP voting. He filed for $10.5 million. The Cardinals offered $7 million, but avoided arbitration by signing their young star to a seven-year, $100 million deal.

Four years later, Ryan Howard came to the arbitration table with an MVP, an All-Star selection, a home run title, and a Rookie of the Year award. The Phillies offered him $7 million for 2008, but he won an award of $10 million, becoming the first player with two-plus years of experience to receive an eight-figure salary.

Though both Pujols and Howard received record-setting contracts, neither player vaulted immediately to the top of the pay scale at his position. If Lincecum's case evolves along those same lines-a request of, say, $12 million and an offer of, say, $9.5 million-The Freak should be in line to add another unique achievement to his resume: highest-paid third-year player ever.

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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BillJohnson
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A TEN-figure request? As in, $1,000,000,000, the smallest ten-figure number? I mean, Tiny Tim is good, but he's not *that* good ... ;-)

Jan 14, 2010 09:32 AM
rating: -4
 
gaucho777

You must have mis-read the article. Euston mentions "anything less than and EIGHT-year request..."

Jan 14, 2010 10:24 AM
rating: -1
 
gaucho777

Sorry, make that EIGHT-figure.

Jan 14, 2010 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Are there set statistical guidelines for arbitrators as far determining who are and aren't comparables? If an arbitrator personally sees a star relief pitcher as more comparable to a starter than star hitters are, can't he go ahead and compare to his heart's content?

Jan 14, 2010 10:08 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jeff Euston
BP staff

Players generally are compared to others at their position, but there is no rule preventing either side from pointing to a player with similar stats at another position. The three-person panel of arbitrators are provided official salary surveys which break down salaries by position and ML service. So obviously any comparison should have some grounding in those numbers. The "special accomplishment" rule gives Lincecum's side more leeway, but the panel still has to be convinced that the comparison is appropriate.

Jan 14, 2010 14:23 PM
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I think that everything the Giants have done this off-season has to be looked at in light of the facts this article brings up. Sabean still deserves a lot of scrutiny for his look-back obsession, but he's also not going to be able to go get some of the guys he might have if he knew what the budget was.

I'm curious - can a player be traded after an arbitration decision, as normal, or are there restraints?

Jan 14, 2010 10:34 AM
 
Dave T
(617)

Couldn't this to some extent have been mitigated by simply negotiating with Lincecum? At least then they'd have a sense of what he's seeking.

Jan 14, 2010 10:44 AM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

Apparently Lincecum's agent isn't interested in doing that, he would rather take his chances with arbitration.

Jan 14, 2010 11:16 AM
rating: 1
 
Deelron

I'm pretty sure they can be traded as normal.

Jan 14, 2010 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jeff Euston
BP staff

Hi, Will! Yes, a player may be traded after an arbitration decision. But salaries in arbitration are not guaranteed, so in theory a club could cut the player in spring training and pay a sixth or a fourth of the salary, depending on the date he's released. But he may not be cut because of his salary - only for lack of performance.

Jan 14, 2010 14:29 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

You mean the Giants won't have payroll room to sign Ryan Garko, after having used it on Huff, Sanchez, DeRosa, etc?

Egads.

Jan 15, 2010 17:56 PM
rating: 2
 
pete

I think he should go for at least $15m. After all, Dontrelle Willis is making $12M this year.

What was Doc Gooden's contract situation?

Jan 14, 2010 10:38 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jeff Euston
BP staff

Gooden earned near minimum as a rookie, then $325,000 with $150,000 in bonuses for 1985, which was just short of a record for a second-year player. After his monster '85 season, he filed for arbitration, asking for $1.5 million, with the Mets offering $1.1. He settled before hearing at $1.32 million deal for 1986, which made him the fifth-highest paid starting pitcher. He also settled after the 1986 season, though some of his legal and off-field issues influenced that decision.

Jan 14, 2010 14:57 PM
 
ProTrade

The irony, of course, is that the Giants have been willing to spend massive sums of money on bad players...But they can't make an acceptable offer to Lincecum.

Jan 14, 2010 10:41 AM
rating: 8
 

How do you know they haven't made an acceptable offer? It sounds as if Lincecum doesn't even want to hear their offer and would prefer to let the panel decide.

Jan 15, 2010 16:51 PM
rating: 1
 
JD Sussman

This is going to be interesting.

Jan 14, 2010 11:39 AM
rating: 0
 
sharksrog

The Giants' horrible free agent debacles have been well documented, but I wonder if the Giants didn't feel some immediate ripple effects from the Barry Zito signing.

Three years ago Giants signed Barry for about twice as much as he likely was worth per season and for perhaps two to four years longer than one would LIKE to extend a pitcher.

Six months later, they apparently didn't try hard enough to lock up what I think they already believed to be their top prospect in at least 20 years. Certainly there is great risk in signing a young, unproven PITCHER to a long-term contract when he first comes up. But as they are now seeing, there can be great risk in NOT doing so, as well.

Might the Giants have been more aggressive in signing Lincecum long-term if they hadn't already taken on the risk of Zito's long-term pact (which wasn't off to a great start)?

A month later the Giants had the opportunity to draft Rick Porcello, considered by some to be the best high school pitching prospect since Josh Beckett, with the #22 overall pick -- which wouldn't even have been the Giants' first pick in the draft, since they took Madison Bumgarner with the 10th overall choice.

Could it be that the risk with Zito stood in the way of what now appears to have been a very fine gamble?

This is theoritical, but the Giants had the opportunity to resist one of the larger pitching contract mistakes in history, to lock up one of the best pitching prospects in history, and then to draft one of the best high school pitching prospects in history -- all in a little over half a year.

Don't know if the decisions were indeed related, but the Giants made the wrong choice at each juncture. And those poor decisions might wind up costing then far more than the $126 million they are paying Zito.

I don't know that a precedent has been set for resisting the Zito signing (except that the 29 other teams did so), but a year after the Giants DIDN'T lock Lincecum up long-term, the Rays did indeed lock up Evan Longoria when Evan was brought up. Evan was drafted seven picks ahead of Lincecum. And a year after the Giants decided NOT to pony up a big draft bonus for Rick Porcello, they did do so with Buster Posey.

So it appears the Giants are capable of learning -- they're merely a year or so late in doing so.

By the way, congratulations to Will for being the first media person I saw to predict the type of future for Tim Lincecum that he has thus far fulfilled. I'm pretty sure that Will wouldn't have signed Zito, that he would have had the guts to lock Lincecum up long term and that he would have had the guts to pay a high bonus for Porcello.

With that in mind, wouldn't the Giants have a chance to save tens of millions by making Will a consultant? :)

Jan 14, 2010 15:08 PM
rating: 6
 
ferret

Also worth noting was the original decision to promote Lincecum to the majors early enough to allow him to become a "Super Two" in arbitration this year.

I think the ripple effect of Zito is well stated, as is the ripple effect of continual poor decision making by the GM.

Jan 15, 2010 01:06 AM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Silly to argue that 29 other teams 'resisted the Zito signing'. The Giants were in a bidding war for the free agent Zito with however many other teams, and they wound up with the best bid. Nothing more to it than that. It's unlikely they were that much higher than whatever the 2nd-highest bid was.

Jan 14, 2010 15:30 PM
rating: 0
 
pete

Not necessarily. Reportedly, when A-Rod signed with the Rangers in 2000, the next highest offer was a 10-year $126M deal from the Braves.

Jan 14, 2010 16:35 PM
rating: 3
 
bhalpern

From the NYT on December 29, 2006:

"The Rangers extended a six-year, $84 million offer to Zito and recently added a $15 million vesting option for a seventh year, according to the executive, who did not want to be named because the deal with the Giants was not official. The Mariners visited Zito in Southern California, as did the Mets, who were considered the favorites to land him but declined to budge from a five-year offer worth about $75 million."

Jan 19, 2010 07:42 AM
rating: 0
 
bldxyz123

I wonder how obvious a move it is that Lincecum's agent isn't looking for a mutli-year deal during a down-market period, realizing that the best way to maximize young Timmy's revenue is to earn bigger and bigger arbitration awards as the market recovers, and then be positioned for the fatness of free agency.

(Moment of confusion: Lincecum isn't eligible for free agency until *after* 2013? I'm reading that after six years of service, one can declare....? And he started 24 games in 2007?)

Of course, he'll be in his 30-year-old season in 2014 (or 29 in 2013, see above confusion), the downside of starting a brilliant career out of a four-year college. So he better be hoping for a booming market, thin for pitching, and continued dominance with few signs of fading, or, a team as gullible as the Giants to hand him a seven year deal (e.g. the above-mentioned Zito-Syndrome).

Jan 14, 2010 15:47 PM
rating: 2
 
joeboxr36

who wins really depends on who submits what. but, what is the range that you would consider "unsurprising". $7-12.5M?

Jan 14, 2010 16:27 PM
rating: 1
 
sharksrog

I wasn't arguing that the other 29 teams (aside from the Giants) resisted signing Barry Zito. I was stating a fact.

Jan 14, 2010 16:47 PM
rating: 0
 
sharksrog

It has been reported that the Giants' offer to Barry Zito was the only one in nine figures. Don't know if that is factual.

Jan 14, 2010 16:48 PM
rating: 1
 
sharksrog

Tim Lincecum isn't eligible for free agency prior to the end of the 2013 season because until then he won't have completed six FULL seasons.

You could be right about Tim's agent not wanting to negotiate a long-term contract in a down market, although at the end of the season it was stated that Tim's agent was open to such a suggestion. That seemed to change in late November, perhaps because Tim's winning his second Cy Young Award put him it even better position.

This whole situation has become amazing. Based on the "special situations" clause, it is conceivable Tim could ask for as much as $25 million. That would be two million more than C.C. Sabathia is making annually, but there is usually a discount for a longer contract.

I don't expect Tim to come in anywhere near that high, but then again, I don't expect the Giants to come in lower than $10 million. And unless Tim's number is through the roof, I expect some sort of a compromise to be reached.

Brian Sabean hates to go to arbitration, and he has already stated that there is virtually nothing bad he can bring up about Tim to argue the smount down.

My own over/under is $13 million, but the whole thing is a crap shoot (as Sabean loves to say about the playoffs). The only way I can see Tim making less than $10 million would be if he comes in with an over-the-top number and the Giants come in with $8 or $9 million. Even then I think Sabean would make every effort to avoid arbitration.

The Giants are indeed in a tricky spot. With the signing of Aubrey Huff, they have now committed $69 million of a previously stated $88-$90 million budget. It would appear that budget has risen to the $95-$100 million level.

Not only do the Giants have Lincecum's arbitration salary to worry about, but they are in the same position with Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Medders.

If Lincecum and the other trio came in at $13, $5, $2 and $1 million, that would make the Giants' commitment $90 million. And with 12 roster spots remaining, the Giants would need to add another $5 million to their payroll even at the minimum for those players.

Meanwhile, Sabean is saying the Giants still have budget flexiblity to sign a reliever and a catcher, although apparently not a fifth starter. Sounds to me as if the Giants need to get prepared to pay as much as $100 million overall.

They might mitigate that circumstance by signing some of the arbitration-eligibles to long-term, back-loaded contracts. But on a contract-average basis, that would make their 2010 salary cost even higher.

It would be fun to know how much the Giants have budgeted for 2010 with regard to the four arbs. If the Lincecum situation spins out of control, it might not be enough.

Jan 14, 2010 17:09 PM
rating: 5
 
bldxyz123

Thanks for the clarification, re: six full seasons. BTW, how is "full" defined? Being on the big league roster the entire season? Being on the 40-man roster? Number of games played?

Jan 16, 2010 08:12 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jeff Euston
BP staff

One year is defined as 172 calendar days on the active 25-man roster or Major League disabled list.

Jan 16, 2010 09:43 AM
 
bcmurph07

Is there an article on the formula they use to determine the top 17% of players?

Jan 14, 2010 19:15 PM
rating: 0
 
bcmurph07

sorry i looked it up and that was a dumb question, i guess it's just top 17% in years of service of people w/ more than two but less than 3 yrs of service.

Jan 14, 2010 19:25 PM
rating: 0
 
mark1623

I think the real reason why Lincecum and his agent are no longer interested in a long term deal is that the players union has been on them to get a massive arbitration award, pushing up the market for everyone else.

Jan 14, 2010 20:16 PM
rating: 0
 
sharksrog

I think the players' union may indeed be putting on the pressure, but I think players should ultimately be able to do what they want to do.

I don't expect this to happen, but an example in another sport would be Sidney Crosby, considered by many to the the 2nd best player in hockey. He took less than market value in order to help the Pittsburgh Penguins be able to build a Stanley Cup winner -- which they did in 2009.

Joe Thornton of the Sharks is another player who took below market value to stay with his teams in hopes of building a top team. I suspect there are players in other sports who have made similar sacrifices.

IMO the player himself is ultimately responsible for the contract he accepts. No doubt the union can have impact, and the agent certainly does. But ultimately the decision is made by the player. He is the one who signs the pact.

One possible resulting impact: Assuming teams have a budgeted amount to spend, if Lincecum drives arbitration awards higher, presumably the contracts of free agents will shrink.

I suspect the players' union would like to use a high arbitration award to drive the salary market up, but at some point there is only so much money available from the 30 teams.

What is crazy to me is that the owners ultimately determine how much they will pay the players. They aren't allowed to collude, but if I were MLB, I would gather the owners and point out that while teams aren't allowed to collude, each owner does have the ability to control the salaries he pays.

I'm sure they must have had discussions to that effect already, but it would seeem that the owners just can't manage to control their greed.

Realistically, where else are players going to play? They can make decent money in Japan, but how many players want to make the sacrifice of playing in a different country which speaks a different language?

MLB has a monopoly which is sanctioned by the legal system based on a general agreement with the players' association that allows a team to control a drafted player for as long as 12 years.

Personally, I'm all for abolishing the draft and letting players negotiate whatever contract the market will bear. But ultimately the owners themselves, individually -- not collectively -- can determine player salaries.

And to an extent, the fans collectively can determine ticket prices. If MLB builds it and the fans don't come, prices will go down.

I guess when all is said and done, it comes down to how the battle of various forms of greed turns out.

Jan 14, 2010 23:05 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

Using hockey players as examples in this era doesn't help. The NHL has a hard salary cap - teams simply *cannot* go over a league-mandated budget. There is also a maximum salary for individual players (a percentage of the overall cap). Knowing that he has a cap anyway and that a few hundred thousand will be allocated to good help is much different from an MLB player limiting his own salary in a self-imposed budgetary system.

Jan 15, 2010 04:46 AM
rating: 3
 
saigonsam

Here's a random question. With all the secrecy surrounding the arbitration offers, has there ever been a case where the team submitted a higher amount than the player?

Jan 15, 2010 02:17 AM
rating: 2
 
BurrRutledge

Great article, Jeff! Thank you!

According to Cot's, the fifth-highest paid pitcher in the league this year is, coincidentally, Barry Zito, earning $18,000,000. It seems like a no-brainer for Rick Thurman to name that salary and still come off as a conservative number to the arbitration panel. Lincecum has arguably/demonstrably performed as "the top" pitcher, at least in his league. And, with more certainty, he's worth as much as his teammate.

From your Cot's Contracts website:
http://mlbcontracts.blogspot.com/2000/05/most-lucrative-contracts.html

Jan 15, 2010 12:22 PM
rating: 0
 
bcmurph07

You can't name Barry Zito's as the end all be all. For a Zito there is a Cliff Lee.

Jan 15, 2010 19:33 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

Lee would be a good comp for the Giants, certainly.

Jan 18, 2010 07:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Smokey

Hey, I know what Sabean can throw at Timmeh! Base stealers were successful 20 out of 25 times against him in 2009.

Jan 15, 2010 21:48 PM
rating: 0
 
bhalpern

Cute. Just for the fun of it, Bengie Molina's full stats for the year were 85 steals out of 110 attempts. So Lincecum's sb numbers are right in line with the average for his catcher.

Jan 19, 2010 07:58 AM
rating: 0
 
sharksrog

In answer to a couple of points, after signing Aubrey Huff, I don't think the Giants are interested in re-signing Ryan Garko. It didn't appear they were interested in doing so even before they signed Huff.

As for what the Giants have offered or not offered Tim Lincecum, I don't think we know, do we?

Jan 16, 2010 01:27 AM
rating: 0
 
sharksrog

It will be intriguing to see what number the Giants' camp comes up with. I would think the Giants would come in at $10 million. I can't see Tim coming in at less than the $12-$15 million range. And he could conceivably come in as high as $25 million.

My guess would be $10 million (Giants) and $16.5 million (Lincecum). But I think I can predict the Giants' offer a lot easier than Tim's.

And unless Tim comes in shooting for the moon, I don't expect it to go to a hearing.

Jan 16, 2010 01:33 AM
rating: -1
 
sharksrog

Lincecum's 20 steals against in 25 attempts isn't very good at all -- but it actually represents an improvement over his first two seasons.

Tim has been working on varying his deliveries to the plate, throwing more to first base and trying to vary his looks at a runner on second. He has improved, but he still has a long way to go in this area.

This is one of the few areas in which Tim has a weakness.

Just for fun, in Lincecum's five starts at AAA Fresno, he yielded only one hit with runners on base and NONE with RISP. The only run he allowed scored on a sacrifice fly.

Lincecum had right at twice as many strikeouts as runners allowed. He made only something like 13 starts in the minors, but I believe he had the highest minor league strikeout rate in at least a decade.

Jan 16, 2010 01:39 AM
rating: 0
 
bcmurph07

I think if i'm the Giants, I tell Tim not to care about giving up 20 steals in a season. The guy just won two cy young awards, i'm not trying to get in his head during his delivery just to save 20 bases a year.

Jan 16, 2010 08:11 AM
rating: 1
 
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