The 2013 offseason for the San Francisco Giants will be just a bit different from recent years. They spent last winter basking in the glow of their second World Series title in three seasons. This time, there will be no October baseball or parades, just tough roster choices for CEO Larry Baer and general manager Brian Sabean. The two largest decisions loom in free agents Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence.
Pence seemingly would be an easier decision because he has expressed next-to-zero desire to test the open market. He first expressed his willingness to stay in San Francisco to ESPN Baseball Insider's Jim Bowden in early March and recently reiterated that stance to CSNBayArea.com's Andrew Baggarly just before the trade deadline.
Pence has been a four-WAR player during his time with San Francisco, according to FanGraphs.com, while hitting .282/.326/.459 this season entering Monday night's game against the Red Sox. Pence's 2012 regular-season numbers were disappointing, but he is currently one of the National League leaders in hits, doubles, stolen bases and extra-base hits.
The new contract discussion likely will be one based on mutual admiration. The outfield options on the 40-man roster are not strong, leaving the Giants to continue with Pence or test the free-agent market. The top projected free agents in right field include Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz. Beltran is the eldest solution, but certainly will have a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals as well as multiple suitors. Choo is more of a top-of-the-order hitter than middle-of-the-order, and Cruz is tainted by his recent PED suspension, an injury history, and defensive issues that could be a problem in the large right field in San Francisco.
Pence will turn 31 at the start of the 2014 season. Last offseason, the 30-year-old Michael Bourn signed a four-year deal for $40 million with the Indians, and Boston signed Shane Victorino for three seasons and $39 million in what was a deeper free-agent class. Many believe the Giants will re-sign Pence, but opinions vary as to how much he can be signed for. San Francisco offering Pence a qualifying offer is both procedural and a foregone conclusion. A four-year deal with an average annual value of $14 million seems realistic, given the player and the status of the market.
The Lincecum situation is not so cut and dry.
Lincecum's story is well-documented. He set the bar impossibly high by winning Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, then declining results -- as well as declining velocity -- set in. The velocity is still not what it once was, but he has reversed the decline in 2013 by reducing his walk rate to previous levels and increasing his strikeout rate to 25 percent, ending a four-season decline in that metric. This season is also the fourth time in five seasons that he has been better than league average in terms of opponents' offensive output, as measured by weighted on-base average.
Lincecum is earning $22 million this season, but that is a figure he is unlikely to match or even approach as a free agent. That is unfortunate for Lincecum, considering what might have been. After his second Cy Young Award season, SB Nation's Grant Brisbee predicted, "Lincecum would now be guaranteed $100 million, regardless if he lost a thumb in a roadside knife-fight with a drifter." In fact, it was reported by CBSSports' Jon Heyman early in 2012 that Lincecum declined a contract extension of that amount.
It is rare to see a pitcher go on the free-agent market at age 29, without any major injury, and take a reduction in average annual pay. That said, considering Lincecum's 4.38 ERA this year and 5.18 in 2012, he'll be taking a pay cut.
The free-agent pitching market will be headlined by the likes of Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana, and to a lesser extent, Josh Johnson. It is expected Garza and Santana will lead the market; both could command at least five years and $80 million. Kuroda is likely to sign only with the Yankees or Dodgers on a year-to-year basis, and Johnson’s unfortunate walk-year will affect both the dollars and years teams are willing to commit to him.
The Giants undoubtedly will tender Lincecum a qualifying offer. That offer is an average of the top 125 contracts in baseball, which is expected to be approximately $14 million. If Lincecum does not find the dollars he wants on the open market this offseason, he could return to the Giants at that price for another season and attempt to continue the turnaround in hopes of finding more favorable conditions on next year’s free-agent market. The Giants might be happy to oblige, as a majority of their better pitching prospects are still a year or two away from being ready for the majors.
Last offseason, Edwin Jackson received a four-year deal with an average annual value of $13 million per season, while Ryan Dempster got a two-year deal for slightly more per year. The Giants could offer Lincecum a three-year, $45 million deal, with mutual options or incentive-based options on the back end. It is not the $100 million that was on the table two years ago, but Lincecum may not want to leave money on the table a second time and find the open market unwilling to go even three years.
Free agency is really about offers that pay players for what they have done rather than for what they will do. In the case of Pence and Lincecum, the Giants know everything about the players, and at least one of them has expressed a strong desire to stay with the team. Given the state of the current organizational chart, keeping both players for a few more seasons makes a lot of sense, at the right price.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to the SweetSpot blog.