Should the Giants Trade Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum?

Mar 09, 12 Should the Giants Trade Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum?

Matt Cain‘s contract situation has been a hot topic in Scottsdale, AZ this past week. MLB Trade Rumors highlighted the latest news on a potential Matt Cain extension earlier today. The question I beg is if the Giants brass would be better off shopping either Tim Lincecum or Cain, rather than signing both to $100+ million contracts (which is what the starting point of negotiations would be.

Lincecum just signed a two-year $40.5 million deal buying out his remaining arbitration years and is reportedly seeking a 7-8 year $175MM extension while Cain is in the last year of his three-year $27.35 million deal.

Let’s look at Cain first: Cain came out and said he will not be giving the Giants a hometown discount and many MLB executives say Cain would garner close to $150 million in the open market. Consensus is that there is no way the Giants lock-up Cain for less than $100 million (probably over 5 or 6 years).

Does Cain deserve that much? No question he has earned it. He has been a workhorse year-in-year-out posting five straight 200+ inning seasons on a career 3.69 FIP. And while he isn’t overpowering with strike outs and he definitely isn’t a groundball pitcher, Matt Cain consistently gets hitters off-balance, resulting in fly-outs. This does put him at risk to giving up home runs but Cain gave up just .37 HR/9 in 2011. Overall, Cain’s 24 career WAR makes him a 4 WAR/year player which is nothing to overlook.

The issue with giving a Giants pitcher a monster contract is that half of their starts are in one of the most pitcher-friendly stadiums in the league. This is especially important for a guy like Cain who is a fly-ball pitcher in what is by far THE toughest park to hit a home run at. Furthermore, it’s not as simple to say – well if Cain re-signs, he will continue to pitch half his games at AT&T park, so what’s the big deal? Problem is, you can’t expect his metrics to hold up throughout his career (e.g. Cain won’t always have a commanding 92+ mph fastball that overpowers hitters up in the zone). Therefore, as his career progresses, pitching in SF may not be as big as an advantage as it is currently. Cain has a career 3.12 ERA at home and 3.62 on the road – not a huge difference but still a notable one.

Lincecum is a different beast and will command a contract similar to the one of CC Sabathia. Fortunately the Giants still have two full years of control before Lincy hits the market, which makes him a much greater commodity than Cain. Lincy’s numbers are phenomenal – career 27.9 WAR, sub-3 FIP, and 9.87 K/9. The biggest question on him is whether his freakishness will eventually come back to haunt him and his shoulder. He has regressed over the last two years and may be showing his true future as a 5-WAR starter (still all-star quality).

I see reasonable arguments for signing either Lincecum or Cain but locking up both pitchers to $100+ million 6+ year contracts is not only a great risk but a constraint on the payroll. Also, players are far more valuable before they hit free-agency when they are often overpaid and locked into contract far past their prime.

I have compiled a list of the largest contracts given to pitchers and have compared their WAR from the three seasons prior to their contract being signed to their WAR after the contract was signed. Note: the ages listed are not necessarily from the date of the contract being signed, but the age of the player during the first season of the contract.


Player Age  Years Amount Date WAR Before WAR After Diff
CC Sabathia 28-34 7 161MM Dec-08 6.73 6.23 -0.50
Johan Santana 29-34 6 137.5MM Feb-08 6.50 2.73 -3.78
Barry Zito 29-35 7 126MM Dec-06 2.77 1.32 -1.45
Mike Hampton 28-35 8 121MM Dec-00 3.97 1.34 -2.63
Kevin Brown 33-39 7 105MM Dec-98 7.50 3.74 -3.76
Cliff Lee 32-36 5 120MM Dec-10 7.00 6.70 -0.30
Carlos Zambrano 26-30 5 91.5MM Aug-07 3.73 2.43 -1.31
Jered Weaver 29-33 5 85MM Aug-11 5.07 N/A N/A
John Lackey 31-35 5 82.5MM Dec-09 3.80 2.80 -1.00
A.J. Burnett 32-36 5 82.5MM Dec-08 3.77 2.13 -1.63
Justin Verlander 27-31 5 80MM Feb-10 5.27 6.70 1.43
Felix Hernandez 24-29 5 78MM Jan-10 4.87 3.90 -0.97
C.J. Wilson 31-35 5 77.5MM Dec-11 4.17 N/A N/A
Roy Oswalt 29-33 5 73MM Aug-06 6.07 3.66 -2.41
Josh Beckett 30-33 4 68MM Apr-10 5.70 2.90 -2.80
John Danks 27-31 5 65MM Dec-11 3.47 N/A N/A
Chris Carpenter 32-36 5 63.5MM Dec-06 5.07 2.98 -2.09
Derek Lowe 35-39 4 60MM Jan-09 4.27 2.6 -1.67
Roy Halladay 33-36 3 60MM Dec-09 6.83 7.4 0.57
Tim Lincecum 27- 5.77
Matt Cain 27- 4.07

This data shows some very interesting stories. 1) Only 4 of the 19 pitchers listed have actually lived up to their contract so far. The best contract on here is probably CC surprisingly, along with Verlander and Halladay 2) The average WAR differential after a contract is signed = -1.52/year 3) 4/6 $100MM contracts have been atrocious and only one can be confirmed as a success (CC) 4) 4/5 contracts of 6 years in length or more have been atrocious (again the one exception is CC)

This speaks loudly. It shows that pitchers are far more valuable prior to hitting free agency. More importantly we can see that players are often over-rated and overpaid for their historical success rather than being paid for their future potential.

I looked at the players WAR from the previous three seasons before signing a large deal. This is because I feel the most recent three years are most valuable to projecting future success. If you look at Barry Zito, his WAR was just 2.77/year in the three seasons prior to becoming the highest paid pitcher in the MLB (at the time). Obviously the Giants overvalued Zito’s Cy Young year in 2002.

Now let’s bring this back to Lincy and Cain. Lincy will get a monstrous contract but that is mostly because of his back-to-back Cy Young years in which he posted WAR of 7.5 and 8.0. But is he a 7 WAR/year pitcher? It doesn’t look like it after posting back-to-back sub-5 WAR seasons – also having his velocity dip among other factors. Still, he is a consistent all-star type of pitcher.

The Giants are in a great situation with Lincecum because he decided to go the year-by-year / short-term route in arbitration and therefore is locked up at a reasonable $20.25MM per year during his “prime” ages of 27 and 28. IF he stays productive at his current pace, Lincy should get a contract somewhere in the range of CC’s 7-year $161MM – keeping him under contract until he is 35 years old.

Cain on the other hand is coming off his career best 5.2 WAR season and is actually younger than Lincy by four months, however; he hits free agency a year sooner at the age of 28. Cain will receive a far more reasonable offer – in the $100MM-125MM range.

What should the Giants do? Given the historical data on large contracts for pitchers post 28/29 years old, it is far too risky for the Giants to lock up BOTH Cain and Lincecum. I would sign Cain to a 5-6 year deal (ideally 5 years with a 6th year option) and then trade Lincecum after this season. Sounds crazy right? Well actually it sounds more like an intelligent baseball and business move to me. The reason is: More likely than not, the Giants have milked all the Cy Youngs out of Tim Lincecum and it is not worth making him one of the highest paid pitchers of all time based off of two outstanding seasons, (in what would be) 4-5 years prior to his new contract. Furthermore Lincy has started to show that he may actually be a 4-5 WAR/year pitcher rather than a 6-7 WAR/year. Far too risky. Instead the Giants can sell high and guarantee themselves either a top ML-ready prospect and then spend the Lincy money on building the club’s offense and reinvesting in the draft.

The Giants can also afford to trade Lincy because of the rapid growth of Madison Bumgarner (who will be relatively cost-controlled throughout arbitration).

Finally, considering that the Giants play in a pitcher-friendly park, it is easier to bring aboard pitchers who can succeed in SF without having to pay such a premium via free agency.

Signing Cain and trading Lincecum may be the best move for the Giants but I am almost sure that Sabean would never do such a thing because signing Cain and Lincecum both to long-term deals will bring job security for at least a couple more years.

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$100+ Million Contracts

Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors’ Transaction Tracker, I have placed below all of the $100+ million contracts signed in baseball history.


Player               Age    Years      Value       Team       Acq. GM                   Agency                           Date

Alex Rodriguez 32 10 $275.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman Boras Corporation 12/13/2007
Alex Rodriguez 25 10 $252.0000MM TEX Doug Melvin Boras Corporation 12/01/2000
Albert Pujols 31 10 $240.0000MM LAA Jerry Dipoto Icon Sports Group 12/08/2011
Prince Fielder 27 9 $214.0000MM DET Dave Dombrowski Boras Corporation 01/24/2012
Derek Jeter 26 10 $189.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman CAA Sports 02/01/2001
Joe Mauer 26 8 $184.0000MM MIN Bill Smith Shapiro, Robinson, & Associates 03/21/2010
Mark Teixeira 28 8 $180.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman Boras Corporation 01/06/2009
CC Sabathia 28 7 $161.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman Legacy Sports Group 12/20/2008
Matt Kemp 27 8 $160.0000MM LAD Ned Colletti Dave Stewart 11/14/2011
Manny Ramirez 28 8 $160.0000MM BOS Dan Duquette 12/19/2000
Troy Tulowitzki 26 10 $157.7500MM COL Dan O’Dowd TWC Sports 11/30/2010
Adrian Gonzalez 28 7 $154.0000MM BOS Theo Epstein John Boggs & Associates 04/15/2011
Miguel Cabrera 24 8 $152.3000MM DET Dave Dombrowski SFX 03/24/2008
Carl Crawford 29 7 $142.0000MM BOS Theo Epstein Legacy Sports Group 12/08/2010
Todd Helton 27 9 $141.5000MM COL Dan O’Dowd 03/01/2001
Johan Santana 28 6 $137.5000MM NYM Omar Minaya Peter E. Greenberg & Associates 02/02/2008
Alfonso Soriano 30 8 $136.0000MM CHC Jim Hendry 11/20/2006
Jayson Werth 31 7 $126.0000MM WAS Mike Rizzo Boras Corporation 12/05/2010
Barry Zito 28 7 $126.0000MM SFO Brian Sabean 12/29/2006
Vernon Wells 28 7 $126.0000MM TOR J.P. Ricciardi Legacy Sports Group 12/20/2006
Ryan Howard 30 5 $125.0000MM PHI Ruben Amaro, Jr. CAA Sports 04/26/2010
CC Sabathia 31 5 $122.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman Legacy Sports Group 10/31/2011
Mike Hampton 28 8 $121.0000MM COL Dan O’Dowd 12/12/2000
Cliff Lee 32 5 $120.0000MM PHI Ruben Amaro, Jr. Frontline 12/13/2010
Matt Holliday 29 7 $120.0000MM STL John Mozeliak Boras Corporation 01/07/2010
Jason Giambi 30 7 $120.0000MM NYY Brian Cashman 12/18/2001
Carlos Beltran 27 7 $119.0000MM NYM Omar Minaya 01/13/2005
Ken Griffey Jr. 30 9 $116.5000MM CIN 02/11/2000
Jose Reyes 28 6 $106.0000MM MIA Larry Beinfest Peter E. Greenberg & Associates 12/04/2011
Ryan Braun 27 5 $105.0000MM MIL Doug Melvin CAA Sports 04/21/2011
Kevin Brown 33 7 $105.0000MM LAD Kevin Malone 12/12/1998
Ryan Zimmerman 27 6 $100.0000MM WAS Mike Rizzo CAA Sports 02/26/2012
Carlos Lee 30 6 $100.0000MM HOU Tim Purpura 11/24/2006
Albert Pujols 24 7 $100.0000MM STL Walt Jocketty 02/19/2004

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