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Debate rages over Lincecum's case

Debate rages over Lincecum's case

There's a good chance Tim Lincecum found out sometime Wednesday night that the Tigers and Justin Verlander agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

And even though Lincecum grew up near Seattle as a Mariners fan, he could have been raised in Wichita and still be well aware that Felix Hernandez and the Mariners re-upped for five years and $78 million a few weeks ago, also avoiding arbitration.

So naturally, with the Giants ace right-hander's arbitration case still looming and starting to take up more and more space in the daily headlines, the baseball world collectively asks one question:

How much is Tim Lincecum really worth?

The basic guidelines have been set to determine that figure, at least for 2010. When Lincecum and his agent, Rick Thurman, filed for arbitration, the player asked for a salary of $13 million for next year. The Giants offered $8 million. Both would be arbitration records for pitchers, by far, and $13 million would be a record, period.

The $5 million gulf is large, and it seems like a hearing might happen in the next few weeks.

And as good as newly wrapped-up Verlander and Hernandez are, neither has won a Cy Young Award. Lincecum has won two. In a row. In his first two full Major League seasons. And he's 25.

So what'll it be?

Will Lincecum's fortunes end up on the side of the $13 million bonanza, or will he lose and have to settle for $8 million? If an agreement is reached before a hearing, will he come out a tad on the winning side at $11 million and change, or would a midpoint of $10.5 settle everyone's curiosity?

If comparisons are what you're looking for, well, there aren't many when it comes to a guy with numbers as staggering as Lincecum's. And that's actually why his arbitration case is such an intriguing one.

Since Lincecum broke into the big leagues in early 2007, he is 40-17 with a 2.90 ERA. Over the past two seasons, he's 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA. He led the NL in strikeouts both years, with 526 during that span for an average of 10.5 per nine innings.

He topped the Majors in ERA, batting average against (.214), winning percentage (.733) and strikeouts. He's also in the very unusual position of being the fourth back-to-back NL Cy Young Award winner in history, joining Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux.

He's got some arbitration history on his side, too.

When Phillies slugger Ryan Howard filed for a record $10 million and the Phillies countered with a $7 million offer in arbitration in early 2008, Howard was coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2006 and an NL MVP season in 2007 when he led the league in home runs (58) and RBIs (149). Not surprisingly, his rare accomplishments led to a win in that hearing that stands as the top arbitration award in history.

The present arbitration scene might have even more bearing on Lincecum's case.

With arbitration looming, Verlander and Hernandez were able to hammer out deals that will pay them an average of more than $15 million a year for the next five years.

Verlander had filed for $9.5 million in 2010 and the Tigers countered with an offer of $6.9 million. Hernandez never traded figures with the Mariners but was believed to be seeking at least $10 million for 2010.

Then again, consider the case of Francisco Rodriguez.

The current Mets closer already had helped the Angels win a World Series as a rookie in 2002 and saved 146 games by the age of 25 when he went to arbitration with the Halos in 2008. He asked for $12.5 million and lost in a hearing, still earning a record-tying $10 million in defeat.

So if K-Rod could lose and still get $10 million without any Cy Youngs, how can "The Freak" lose in his bid for the lucky 13 with two Cys in his pocket?

Well, there's always the durability question.

Remember, if this goes to a hearing, the Giants will present to a three-person panel the reasons why Lincecum should not be paid $5 million more than the club desires. And they won't hold back.

The strongest possible argument they'd be likely to present has to do with the very reason Lincecum lasted until the 10th pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

Scouts and baseball people saw his 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame, the unconventional, torqued-out delivery that enabled him to reach the upper-90s with his moving fastball, and he was projected as either a starter with a very short career or a reliever.

Obviously, he's proved them all wrong. For now.

But since those predictions, Lincecum has thrown an average of 226 innings in his two Cy Young years, he threw an NL-leading 7,121 pitches last season and, according to statistical analysis site FanGraphs, his fastball velocity dropped from an average of 94.1 mph in 2008 to 92.4 mph last year. Don't think for a second the Giants won't use those numbers if it gets to a hearing.

The thing is, when put into current context, the $13 million request doesn't seem unreasonable, which puts Lincecum in a promising spot during these weeks.

Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out that 43 players have a 2010 salary of $13 million or more, and 15 are pitchers. Lincecum's veteran teammate, lefty Barry Zito, makes an average of $18 million a year. Granted, he won a Cy Young, with Oakland in 2002, but he has been a league-average starter lately.

The good news for Lincecum is that he's going to be a very rich young man regardless of what happens. Even if Lincecum loses, the $8 million would be a record for a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher, beating Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $6.25 million base salary last winter.

But Lincecum reportedly has been offered only two-year deals from the Giants and is heading toward a hearing in which he'll have to listen to why two Cy Youngs isn't good enough to make the money he thinks he deserves.

Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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