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.


  1. So the season hasn’t started and it’s already “The Lincecum Bashing and Trading episode again”.

    No wonder Timmy doesn´t want to sign with you guys long term, he is already fed up, he is gone in two years.

    Trade him already. I’m sick of this debate of putting Lincecum down and raising Matt Cain like he is some sort of Roy Halladay.

    Yes, Timmy is leaving The Giants, hopefully to a better team, a team that can give him some run support, a team with fans that wish him luck, instead of wishing him a bad season so the team can get rid of him.

    And yes, he is taking his despicable Cy Youngs with him.

    • Nirav Bhardwaj /

      I am not bashing Lincecum, instead; I make the argument that it may be in the best long-term interest of the club if they traded either him or Matt Cain. It is a great financial burden to carry a player with a $150MM+ contract when the risk of injury is so high.

      This is a strategic long-term decision – buy low, sell high. Secure durable pieces at reasonable prices.

      That said, I do strongly believe that Brian Sabean will bring both Lincecum and Cain back on long-term deals.

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