Thirty years ago, many baseball executives would have looked at Madison Bumgarner's 3.21 ERA and 13-13 record and said he doesn't know how to win.
We know better now, of course, which is why the San Francisco Giants signed the 22-year-old left-hander to a six-year, $35.56 million deal that buys out his first year of free agency and includes $12 million options for 2018 and 2019 (which can escalate if he finishes in the top three of the Cy Young voting or wins the award).
Bottom line: If he stays healthy those options years will be an absolute bargain. Consider the 2012 salaries of some middle-of-the-rotation starters:
Derek Lowe, $15 million
Ryan Dempster, $14 million
Bronson Arroyo, $12 million
Kyle Lohse, $11.9 million
Ervin Santana, $11.2 million
Edwin Jackson, $11 million
Tim Lincecum, Bumgarner's teammate, will make $40.5 million over the next two seasons, and while Lincecum's résumé includes two Cy Young Awards, there's an argument to be made that Bumgarner was the better pitcher in 2011. In just 12.1 fewer innings, Bumgarner walked 40 fewer batters, allowed three fewer home runs and had a far superior strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.15 to 2.56). Lincecum allowed fewer hits, but some of that can be explained by Bumgarner's .322 batting average allowed on balls in play. Only four qualified starters allowed a higher mark, so with a little regression in that category you can see why some people considered Bumgarner a sleeper Cy Young candidate this year.
For what the Giants will be paying Lincecum over two seasons, they will potentially get for three years of Bumgarner down the road. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Take it even one step further: If Bumgarner improves just a bit, and with his ability to throw strikes, the obvious comparison is Cliff Lee. That's how good he could be and why I do see a Cy Young Award in his future. And the Phillies are paying Lee $21.5 million this year and $25 million per year from 2013-2015. Bumgarner would vest at $16 million in 2018 or '19 if he wins the Cy Young Award, a salary the Giants would happily pay.
The risk, as it is with any young pitcher, is health. Bumgarner did have a dead arm in spring training of 2010, although recovered to eventually join the Giants rotation later in the season and help them win a World Series as a rookie. Bumgarner's contract is also the largest ever given a pitcher with fewer than two seasons of experience. Still, it seems like a good risk for both sides. Bumgarner gets the guaranteed payday and even if he ends up being underpaid relative to performance by the end of the contract, he'll still be just 30 years when he hits free agency after 2019 -- a year younger than Lee was in 2010.
Considering his age, the Giants would be wise to be cautious in his pitch counts for at least another season. He averaged just 97 pitches per start last season, with only three starts of 120-plus pitches. I'd like to see him handled the way the Dodgers limited Clayton Kershaw in 2010, his age-22 season, when Kershaw averaged 105.9 pitches per start. With the right amount of caution, the Giants can turn Bumgarner loose in 2013 ... and maybe, like Kershaw, he'll be the owner of shiny trophy.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.