Could Lincecum file for $23 million at arbitration?

Tim Lincecum(notes) is due a large raise.

Fortunately, baseball has a system in place for the occasion.

It’s called salary arbitration, and Lincecum has been around just long enough to qualify for the first time. Conveniently for him, it arrives just in time to celebrate his second consecutive Cy Young Award. The system has never processed anyone quite like Lincecum, and now the question it might have to consider about his 2010 salary is this: Is 23 million and one dollars a starting point, an ending point or just some wild concept hatched to ratchet up the final number another hundred grand or two?

Tim Lincecum, who won his second consecutive Cy Young Award on Friday, could file for $23 million at arbitration.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Baseball shudders. It hates wild concepts.

Soon, San Francisco Giants owner Bill Neukom and his GM, Brian Sabean, will submit what they believe Lincecum should earn for 2010. The agents at Beverly Hills Sports Council, in this case headed by Rick Thurman, will do the same on Lincecum’s behalf.

You may assume the Giants by then will have researched the largest salaries granted to pitchers who were first-time arbitration eligible. Dontrelle Willis(notes), in 2006, received $4.4 million, the most for a starting pitcher. Three years later, Jonathan Papelbon’s(notes) $6.25 million (he settled with the Red Sox before the actual hearing) was the most received by a pitcher of any type who was an arbitration newbie.

That’s as close as the Giants are going to get to measuring Lincecum’s value by the regular standards. People in the business call them “comps.” Which, in this case, possess a minor flaw.

They’re not comparable.

So, they will have to search further for a player such as Lincecum, who got by in 2009 on $650,000. Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard(notes) won $10 million in 2008. The same year, Los Angeles Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez(notes) lost his case and walked with $10 million. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano(notes) did the same two years earlier. Howard was first-time eligible and a Super Two – ranking him among the top handful of players with two-plus years of service – as Lincecum is.

Howard had an MVP award. One.

A year later, when he had an MVP and an MVP runner-up, Howard filed for $18 million. So, are we getting closer?

Or should we think about Derek Jeter(notes) in 2001, his third and final arbitration year? He filed for $18.5 million before agreeing to a 10-year, $189-million contract. Was he the best shortstop in the game? The best player in the game?

Big picture, the game has put together consecutive years of $6.5 billion in revenues. A year ago, when the world economy was collapsing, salary arbitration was the place to be. The 111 arbitration eligible baseball players – regardless of service time – averaged raises of nearly triple their previous salaries.

What, your 401(k) didn’t triple?

So, there are the comps. Think Lincecum is bigger than Papelbon, bigger than Howard? But not Jeter? OK, another arbitration term might interest Sabean. It’s “special accomplishment.”

Sounds expensive. It is. Special accomplishment is what got Howard (and his agent, CAA’s Casey Close) to $10 million after two full big league seasons and how he surely would have gotten $18 million after three (and then why the Phillies are paying him $54 million over three seasons).

Special accomplishment is Jeter, being Jeter.

It is recognition by the system – and then the arbitration panel – that the ballplayer sitting before it is unique. Not simply good, not even great, but unequaled at this point in his life and career.

No player in his first two full seasons has won Cy Youngs in both.

At 25 years old, 89 starts in, Lincecum is 40-17 for a team with no discernible offense. His ERA is 2.90. In his Cy Young seasons his numbers go 33-12, 2.55. And the little wispy kid everyone assumed would blow into the bay one September night, assuming his arm stayed attached that long, in two seasons has made 65 starts and thrown 452 1/3 innings. Those worries? Up – ahem – in smoke.

Sure, he’s got peers.

Superman, for one.

Over a season, Zack Greinke(notes), Felix Hernandez(notes), Adam Wainwright(notes), Chris Carpenter(notes).

Over two?

Eight pitchers have won more than two Cy Youngs. They are Clemens, Randy Johnson(notes), Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux(notes), Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez(notes), Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver. One – Clemens – won two by the age of 25, and only Martinez and Seaver won one by then.

So if the Giants and Lincecum advance to a hearing, Lincecum would ask the panel to consider a pay structure without regard to service time or comparable salaries. It’s why he’d ask the panel for $12 million or $14 million. Or more.

And it’s why the Giants seem to have no strong ideas about strategy, and maybe why they so desperately need bats and yet apparently won’t bid for Matt Holliday(notes) or Jason Bay(notes).

So, how big will Timmy go?

One baseball official said this week the folks at Beverly Hills Sports Council and players’ union had discussed the strategic bounds of submitting a bid for $23,000,001. The highest-salaried pitcher, CC Sabathia(notes), plus a dollar. And all that symbolizes. Why shouldn’t the best pitcher get the most money, period? The agency and union declined to comment on the highly secretive process, other than to grant that, yes, Lincecum is a special case. Extremely special.

That certainly would be big. They’d lose, of course. The Giants would be thrilled. Sabean could roll out his stats guys after cocktails, win the case, and head back to the bar for a celebratory night cap.

The Giants would pay him their $8 or $9 million, even $10 million, and go happily. After all, after a couple years, there’s never been anyone better, as Lincecum’s agents well know. How does one quantify the unquantifiable?

Maybe it’s enough to know they’ve talked about it, kicked it around, made the union a little nervous and had a laugh over what the reaction might be.

CC plus a dollar? Funny. Self-destructive, but funny, in that special accomplishment kind of way. Nobody would do that.

Would they?

And if they did, they couldn’t win.

Could they?

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009