Lincecum deal sets high market for top starters

 It may be a bit early to truly gauge what this winter holds for free agent starters, but Tim Lincecum agreeing to re-sign with the Giants on Tuesday gives us some clues. His two-year $35M deal, pending a physical, indicates more teams will likely use the qualifying offer as a measuring stick for their free agent expenditures, and as usual, it’s going to pay big you’re an above average free agent starter.

Lincecum’s 3.2 WAR he’s averaged in his career is probably a bigger piece to his contract puzzle than his negative WAR’s in the previous two seasons. Today’s market values one win between $5-7M which makes it easy to see how a three win pitcher can command $15M a season.

As noted by Alex, it’s slim pickings for top free agent pitching. Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jiminez and Ricky Nolasco represent the cream of the crop, and Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka will be highly sought after as well. A.J. Burnett and Hiroki Kuroda belong in that class too, but Burnett has openly stated it’s Pittsburgh or bust for him, and Kuroda seems likely to either re-up with the Yankees or head home to Japan. Kuroda and Burnett are both likely to receive and decline qualifying offers, so for arguments sake, lets assume they both stick with their 2013 clubs and sign one year deals worth around $15M, and fill number 2 or 3 roles in their respective rotations.

The Seattle Mariners have only been associated with Lincecum at this point, so we can probably factor them out of the running for the others, as well as the Giants and Pirates with the resigning of Lincecum and Burnett respectively. The Yankees will have multiple rotation holes even with Kuroda back, and a desire to get under the luxury tax threshold of $189M for 2014. The Dodgers seem set on winning so expect them to spend big dollars. I could see the Rangers, Nationals, Blue Jays, Twins (yes, money will be available), Padres (they get their slice of the TV deal too), and Phillies to possibly get involved in the bidding.

Nolasco and Garza will come without draft pick compensation thanks to being traded during the 2013 season, but Santana and Jiminez are likely to decline QO’s should they receive one, and they both probably will. Tanaka is an interesting case, as he’ll require a posting fee of around $55M based on what Yu Darvish brought, and a contract north of $10M AAV. However, only the AAV will count towards a team’s luxury tax number, and we’re looking at you, Pinstripes. Lincecum’s $17.5M AAV Stands as a reasonable goal for all mentioned aside from Tanaka.

Lincecum’s struggles in 2012 and 2013 means he enters 2014 as a 3 win pitcher, his career average, which is comparative to the value provided by Santana and Jiminez the past couple seasons. Garza projects as a 2 win+ pitcher for 2014 after being healthy for most of the season, but most of the ace potential from his younger years is gone. Nolasco fits the mold of a 2 win pitcher next year as he looks to build on his successful stint with the Dodgers and getting out of Miami.

While Tanaka appears to be the prize, he faces a risky transition to the American game, and the other four starters have their own warts by way of injury, inconsistency, and fondness of the long ball. Factoring Lincecum’s deal into the equation, let’s look at how the market shapes up for the others.

Lincecum is looking to re-establish his value on a short-term deal, but considering the lack of other high quality options available, I expect Nolasco, Jiminez, Garza and Santana to be searching for deals in the 4-5 year range. Along with Lincecum’s guarantee, the $14.1M QO salary definitely has driven up the bottom line price on these pitchers. Some say the Giants paid a premium price for a reclamation project, but what they’re really doing is hoping Lincecum has turned a corner for the better in 2013, and factoring in the high cost of replacing him.

Teams have become increasingly weary of sacrificing top picks to land free agents in years past. If Santana and Jiminez both have compensation attached to them, we could see their market affected similar to how it was for Kyle Lohse, last winter. Still, the two will both get paid handsomely this winter, and I could see Jiminez netting $64M on a four-year pact, and Santana being paid as if he was vintage Johan with a five-year deal approaching $90M in total value. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Garza get something similar to Santana since he won’t cost a draft pick and the Yankees will likely be involved. Nolasco will probably fall somewhere between Jiminez and Lincecum, and I can see him grabbing $17M AAV on a four year deal.

Unfortunately, Mariners fans shouldn’t expect to see any of these players mentioned donning the blue and teal anytime soon, and that’s probably a good thing. If I were to make predictions right now, I would venture that the Yankees spring for both Tanaka and Garza to solidify their rotation, while the Dodgers bid with the Blue Jays and Rangers for Nolasco and Jiminez. I have a feeling that a team like the Twins or Padres will ultimately land Santana with hope that having him pitch in a true pitcher’s park will keep his numbers low enough to justify the contract he receives.

Despite all the uncertainty that exists in free agent market, we can be certain about one thing: a No. 3 starter is now going to cost you $15M annually. Man, King Felix’s contract is going to look like an absolute steal in the next couple years.

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Jason A. Churchill

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