Dickey: Lincecum's arbitration hearing will set a record

Unless Tim Lincecum and the Giants can reach a last-minute compromise settlement, they’ll go into an unprecedented arbitration hearing today.

The Giants are offering $8 million, which in itself would be more than a 1,200 percent increase over Lincecum’s 2009 salary. His agent has countered with a $13 million figure. The arbitration panel must pick one figure or the other. If the panel chooses the figure proposed by Lincecum’s agent, the young pitcher, just 26 on June 15, will get the biggest settlement for a player in his first-time arbitration settlement, beating the previous record of $10 million for Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.

The nearest pitchers in previous arbitration hearings would be Dontrelle Willis and Cole Hamels. After four seasons, including one in which he won 22 games, Willis avoided arbitration by signing a one-year contract for $6.45 million with the Florida Marlins in January, 2007. After being named MVP of the 2007 World Series, Hamels signed a three-year contract for $20.5 million in January, 2008 with the Phillies.

But neither Willis nor Hamels won two straight Cy Young awards, as Lincecum has done in his first two full major league seasons. How do you put a price tag on that?

Arbitration was started in the early ’70s, primarily because Charlie Finley was seriously underpaying many of the players on the three-time World Champion A’s.

Free agency soon followed, but it has been limited to players who have played in the major leagues for at least six seasons, with arbitration for players with less experience.

Clubs sometimes try to lock up players with long-term contracts during their arbitration-eligible period, as the Phillies did with Hamels. But there is a special risk of doing that with pitchers, who can be fragile. The Giants have a recent example of that, Noah Lowry, whose once-promising career was cut short by a mysterious arm ailment.

That example has probably made them leery of offering a long-term contract to Lincecum. They know that the only reason they were able to draft Lincecum was because other teams feared he would break down because of his relatively slight build, much like Tim Hudson.

Though they delayed, the Giants reportedly have made an offer to Lincecum for a three-year contract for a total $37 million, starting with $9.5 million this year, $12.5 million in 2011 and $15 million in 2012. The payment structure is no doubt necessary because the overly-rich contracts paid out to others, most notably Barry Zito, have stretched the Giants thin.

Lincecum’s agent reportedly countered with a package for more than $40 million, starting at $12.5 million in the first year. Since that’s almost as much as he’s asking in arbitration, the Giants will probably figure they might as well risk losing.

One thing is certain: Giants fans better enjoy Lincecum now because he’s not going to be around when he’s eligible for free agency. CC Sabathia got seven years for $161 million from the Yankees this year. That’s the kind of money Lincecum would be looking at right now if he were eligible for free agency. The Giants won’t be able to afford him then.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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