The cost of Lincecum and Cain
The homegrown right-handers are going to get very expensive very soon
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tim Lincecum was already company property the first time he saw the San Francisco Giants play in person. Shortly after agreeing to a $2.025 million bonus as the 10th pick in the 2006 draft, Lincecum flew to California from Washington to watch a game and meet the players who would eventually become his teammates.
Barry Bonds was still dominating the premises with his outsized ego, his entourage, his black leather clubhouse chair and his pursuit of Hank Aaron's career home run record, but Lincecum noticed something else when he walked through the AT&T Park home clubhouse doors. His gaze fell on rookie right-hander Matt Cain, who was stretching and preparing to go out to face the Philadelphia Phillies.
First impressions can last a lifetime. Even after winning two Cy Young Awards and three strikeout titles and having Randy Johnson advise his virtual twin to "put a towel on" in a classic video game commercial, Lincecum still views Cain as an inspiration because of his superior service time. That's true even though Lincecum turns 28 in June, and Cain won't celebrate his 28th birthday until October.
"I kind of looked up to him from the beginning," Lincecum says. "I thought, 'This guy is younger than me and we're actually peers.' But he was already here, and that was my dream."
Over the past four seasons, Lincecum and Cain have defined competitive baseball in San Francisco and helped bring the franchise its first World Series title since 1954. They go together like Krukow and Kuiper, garlic and fries, and splashdowns in the McCovey Cove. Giants fans love them, opponents dread facing them, and they almost always seem to rise to the occasion.
Which leads us to the organizational question du jour: Can the Giants afford to keep them?
"A fluid situation"
It's an expensive proposition maintaining continuity in an elite rotation. In January the Giants spent $40.5 million on a two-year extension for Lincecum, but it will only take him through the final two years of salary arbitration and make him a free agent following the 2013 season. Meanwhile, the team has been discussing an extension with Cain, who will join Cole Hamels as the hot free-agent pitching commodity of the upcoming winter, assuming neither signs a deal before then.
Pair of aces
• Among active pitchers with at least 750 career innings, Lincecum ranks fifth in opponents' batting average at .223 and Cain is seventh at .227. They sandwich Johan Santana, who is in sixth place at .226.
• Cain comes from the Don Sutton school of pitching durability. He has never missed a start because of injury and has been skipped in the rotation only once in six years. Since 2007 he ranks fifth in baseball in quality starts and is one of only four pitchers with 20 or more quality starts each season. The other three: Roy Halladay, Dan Haren and CC Sabathia.
• Since Lincecum's debut with the Giants in May 2007, he leads the majors with 31 games of 10 or more strikeouts. Justin Verlander is second in that span with 20. Lincecum's career ratio of 9.87 strikeouts per nine innings is tops among active starters with at least 750 innings.
No deal is imminent for Cain, and a source familiar with the talks told ESPN.com that if this were a nine-inning game, the two sides are in the "fifth inning." The Giants have a figure in mind, and so does Cain, and if nothing is finalized by Opening Day it's likely the team and the pitcher's representatives will table discussions and let things play out after the season.
This much is clear: Cain, like Hamels, has no interest in using Jered Weaver's five-year, $85 million contract as a barometer. Weaver committed to the Los Angeles Angels 15 months shy of free agency because he's a Southern California kid who wanted to stay close to home. Hamels is a San Diego native pitching in Philadelphia, and Cain is Alabama-born, Tennessee-bred and playing in the Bay Area. Neither pitcher is subscribing to the "hometown discount" model of contract talks.
Landon Williams and Rick Landrum, Cain's agents, recently joined Creative Artists Agency, which has negotiated $100 million-plus contracts for Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman over the past two years. Can Cain break that string and become the first non-Ryan to land a nine-figure deal?
Giants general manager Brian Sabean declined to characterize the state of negotiations, except to say that it's a "fluid situation" and talks are "ongoing." In the case of both Cain and Lincecum, the team's commitment will be substantial enough to inspire a top-down organizational dialogue.
"The first thing you have to do with ownership is carve out what you're able to do in subsequent budgets," Sabean says. "Secondarily, everybody has to be on the same page, from the coaching staff to the general manager to the ownership group. Ultimately we'll have a point where we're comfortable going forward, and hopefully that means it's a comfort zone for the two pitchers."
Since Cain's and Lincecum's first full season together in 2008, the Giants have ranked ninth, second, first and second in the National League in team ERA and had the luxury of filling holes in the lineup with affordable veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell. Barry Zito has been a disappointment since signing a $126 million deal in 2006, but Madison Bumgarner has helped pick up the slack as yet another successful homegrown starter. Top prospect Zack Wheeler (ranked No. 29 in baseball by ESPN Insider's Keith Law) was supposed to join Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner in the San Francisco rotation, but he was traded to the New York Mets last July for Carlos Beltran, diluting the organization's pitching depth and giving Cain and Lincecum even more leverage.
The two pitchers feed off each other even though they live in different worlds. Lincecum bops into the clubhouse with baggy clothes, a skullcap and headphones -- in short, looking like a refugee from the X Games.
Cain, according to a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle profile, grew up on a farm "riding horses, driving pickups and dove hunting with his bird dog" and never lived in a town with more than 3,000 people. His high school coach referred to him as "Big Daddy Cain" in reference to the 1980s rapper Big Daddy Kane, but the nickname hasn't gotten much traction since he left Germantown High in suburban Memphis. Cain is quiet, understated and drifts through the clubhouse without notice.
Although the two rarely socialize off the field, they watch each others' starts and are on the lookout for subtleties. Lincecum, for example, notices that a different look comes over Cain's face when a cheap hit drops in or he's squeezed by an umpire, and he finds a way to kick it into another gear.
Lincecum was particularly impressed during the 2008 season, when Cain went 8-14 thanks to the second-worst run support in the majors.
"He never complained," Lincecum says. "He never said anything about it."
Last year, when the Giants scored a major league-low 2.94 runs per game in Lincecum's starts, he tried to apply that same sense of stoicism to his game.
Whereas Lincecum is impressed by Cain's demeanor and mound presence, Cain was blown away by Lincecum's freakish ability the first time he saw the kid pitch.
"It didn't make sense," Cain says. "It was like a circus show in a way. You hear about him and you're like, 'Come on, they're probably bumping the radar up.' Then all of a sudden you see him and he's throwing 95, 97, 100 in his first start, with nasty sliders. We were all like, 'It's true.'
"It's just an effortless thing for him. I've always felt like I could do stuff naturally, so easily. Then I see him and it's a whole different level."
As special as the two pitchers might be individually, their extended run of success together as Giants sets them apart. Quite often these days, promising young pitchers change teams because of economics, "change of scenery" considerations or because they're so valuable that general managers can't resist the return package. Since the end of the 2010 season, Zack Greinke, Ubaldo Jimenez, Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Michael Pineda have all switched teams in trades.
Through the years, Sabean has had ample opportunity to bust up his All-Star duo. Cain's name has popped up in trade rumors for Alex Rios, Corey Hart and other young hitters, but the Giants never seriously entertained other teams' overtures for him.
Zito, who was part of a marquee trio with Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson in Oakland before finances intervened and the pitchers went their separate ways, knows from experience how fragile these unions can be. He thinks Lincecum and Cain should appreciate what they have going.
"You feel like you have a couple of blood brothers out there, even more than the rest of the guys on the team, because you're in a similar situation," Zito says. "I'm sure those guys have a little bit of a friendly competition going on. I'm sure they drive each other in an unspoken kind of way."
Lincecum inherited an appreciation for baseball history from his father, Chris, and muses occasionally on where he and Cain might fit in the game's long-term spectrum. He's convinced that he would have been at home hanging out with Mark Fidrych and Bill Lee in the post-Watergate era, while Cain would have been more comfortable in the days of train travel and wool uniforms.
"If I had to be part of any era, it would have been the '70s with all those weirder, unorthodox guys," Lincecum says. "And Cainer would have been more at home in the '50s, with all those big old corn-fed guys who went about their business."
Of course, everything is more complicated now, and money has a way of tearing even the strongest unions asunder. Blood is thicker than water. The Giants are about to discover how it stacks up to free agency.