Taking a Lesson From Tim Lincecum

A big topic this off-season will be the focus on Tim Lincecum’s first year in arbitration.  Lincecum was designated as a Super Two player, which means he replaces his third league minimum year with an extra year of arbitration, thus starting the arbitration process one year early.  That’s huge for a pitcher who won the CY Young Award in back to back years, which were his first two full seasons in the majors.

Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports wrote about how Lincecum could end up asking for $23 M and one dollar, with the one dollar being in place to make Lincecum the highest paid pitcher in the majors (one dollar more than C.C. Sabathia).  Of course, Lincecum won’t receive this amount of money, as the whole point of the arbitration process is to avoid a situation like this.  However, Lincecum could end up receiving at least $10 M in his first year of arbitration, which is huge when you consider he will be due for three more raises on that number in his remaining arbitration years.

Arbitration is inevitable for Lincecum, but it could have been delayed.  In fact, the cut-off for Super Two players this season was two years, 139 days.  At the end of the 2009 season, Lincecum had two years, 148 days of service time.  In 2007 the Giants called Lincecum up on May 6th to make his debut against the Phillies.  Had the Giants waited just ten more days, they would have avoided Super Two status with Lincecum, only missing two starts in the process.

The impact of that decision is huge.  If Lincecum goes through the arbitration process every year, he could end up making somewhere close to $20 M in his fourth year of arbitration.  That fourth year would have never existed had the Giants waited an extra week and a half to call up Lincecum.  It’s very likely that those ten days cost the Giants $15-20 M.

That’s something for the Pirates fans to think about going in to the 2010 season.  Top prospects Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, and Jose Tabata all are expected to be up in June, although I’ve already seen people wanting those players to make the team out of camp with a strong Spring Training.  I’m not going to get in to why Spring Training means nothing (like mentioning how Pedro Alvarez hit for a .444 average, then struggled in high-A), but I will say that the Pirates definitely need to avoid Super Two status with these players.

I don’t think the Pirates will have a situation like the Giants have with Lincecum, although I do think that Alvarez, Tabata, and Lincoln could all be in position to make $8-10 M in a fourth arbitration year if they were to have Super Two status.  Think about that for a second.  That’s $24-30 M the Pirates could save by holding those three back for an extra month (an extra month because they’re already going to be held back a month to gain an extra year of control).  For a small market team that sticks to the $40-50 M payroll range, the Pirates can’t afford to throw money away like that, all for two extra months of production in a meaningless season.

The idea is never popular.  Before the season begins, the idea of keeping a prospect down until June seems like a lifetime.  In hindsight, it’s always a good decision.  Does anyone regret the Pirates keeping Andrew McCutchen down for two months in 2009?  We heard the same “let him start the season in the majors” talk last year with McCutchen.  Now that we’ve got an extra year of control, while avoiding Super Two status, the decision to keep him down until June doesn’t seem so bad.

On the other hand, don’t you think San Francisco wishes they would have kept Lincecum down an extra month?  Think of what they could have done with an extra $10 M in payroll this season.  That’s what they’d have if they would have waited ten more days to call up Lincecum.  He only made two starts during that ten day period, which means each of those starts ended up costing the Giants about $5 M in the long run.

So when Spring Training rolls around, and Pedro Alvarez or Jose Tabata have good numbers in their 22 at-bats, keep in mind that two months of waiting could potentially equal major savings for the Pirates.  The tin-foil hat crowd will throw out complaints about Bob Nutting and profits, but I fully believe the Pirates are on the right track to compete in a few years with guys like Alvarez, Lincoln, and Tabata, along with other players like McCutchen, Owens, Locke, d’Arnaud, and Sanchez.  Would you rather have two extra months of Alvarez/Lincoln/Tabata in 2009, or would you rather have extra money to spend in 2013; money that could be spent filling the final holes of a team that has a good shot of competing?

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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