SAN FRANCISCO -- The way time flies, Tim Lincecum's next potential contract showdown with the Giants will arrive with the speed of his fastball. But though two years may seem fleeting, it'll give both the Giants and Lincecum ample time to reevaluate their respective positions, gauge the market and perhaps reach their next agreement without the threat of a salary-arbitration hearing to goad them. Lincecum will have two years of arbitration eligibility remaining when the two-year, $23 million deal he agreed to Friday expires after the 2011 season. So in a sense, the Giants will face the same predicament they confronted this year: Do they risk taking Lincecum to arbitration and paying him an enormous sum on a one-year contract if they lose the case? Or do they attempt to sign Lincecum to a longer multiyear pact which might pay him less on an annual basis but still represents a sizable financial commitment.
From Lincecum's perspective, he can't lose. By contrast, the Giants have some thinking to do. Since Lincecum will become eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, signing him to a contract of at least three years after his current deal ends will enable the Giants to "buy out" one or more years of free agency. That might be an advisable course of action for the Giants to take if Lincecum continues to perform at or near his current level. Price tags on premier pitchers likely will continue to rise. But it's entirely conceivable that Lincecum would give the Giants a modest "hometown discount" that might save the club a few million dollars. Then again, San Francisco could be constrained by various payroll dynamics. After the 2011 season, they'll still owe left-hander Barry Zito $19 million in 2012 and $20 million in 2013. They may decline Zito's $18 million option for 2014, though they'd have to pay him a whopping $7 million buyout. The Giants must pay center fielder Aaron Rowand $12 million in 2012, the final year of his contract. And third baseman Pablo Sandoval will become arbitration-eligible after the 2011 season. He'll command a significant salary if he maintains his 2009 production. Moreover, the Giants have right-hander Matt Cain to consider. The club holds a $6.25 million option on his 2011 contract, which it almost surely will pick up. Imagine Giants management trying to decide how much money to allocate to each pitcher. The club will be leery of insulting either one or overpaying both. It's all speculation at this point, but San Francisco could be forced into trading one of the two right-handers -- similar to the situation it faced after the 1996 season, when Matt Williams was sent to Cleveland, partly because the Giants knew they couldn't afford both him and Barry Bonds. There's also the issue of winning. Assuming they stay healthy and effective, Lincecum and Cain maximize the Giants' chances of capturing their first World Series since 1954. The Giants believe that by the end of the 2011 season, their pitching will be complemented by hitting prospects who should be Major League-ready, such as Buster Posey, Thomas Neal and Roger Kieschnick. So the Giants' accord with Lincecum could be an aberration, something they won't be able to duplicate on a multiyear basis. Or it could prove to be a down payment.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.