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01/23/12 10:38 PM EST

Giants' caution, Lincecum's patience could pay

SAN FRANCISCO -- The five-year, $100 million contract offer that the Giants reportedly lobbed at Tim Lincecum made complete sense.

It made sense for management, because if Lincecum were to accept, the Giants would have a bargain.

So it made sense for Lincecum to rebuff San Francisco's attempt to secure his services through his final two arbitration-eligible seasons and his first three years of free agency. He conceivably could do much better if or when he enters free agency, for which he is eligible after the 2013 season.

MLB Network analyst John Hart, who negotiated plenty of big contracts as an executive with Cleveland and Texas, was asked on Monday about Lincecum's prospects on the open market. Could Lincecum, as a free agent, coax a contract that would approach the $24.4 million average annual value (AAV) of the five-year, $122 million extension that the Yankees gave CC Sabathia last year?

"Most probably," Hart said.

ESPN baseball analyst and insider Jim Bowden, a former general manager with Cincinnati and Washington, cited the five-year, $120 million package that Philadelphia left-hander Cliff Lee received last year. Pointing out that Lee was 32 when he began playing under that contract, Bowden suggested that Lincecum, who will be 29 when he reaches free agency as scheduled, might be able to command the same AAV of $24 million on a six-year deal.

"He's going to get more than Cliff," Bowden said of Lincecum, the only pitcher to win National League Cy Young Awards in each of his first two full seasons. "This is a young kid who has done historic things."

The advantage of the Giants' proposal, initially reported on Sunday by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, lies in its immediacy, as it would guarantee Lincecum considerable security, along with wealth, right now.

But Lincecum could attract offers with terms that would approach or eclipse those of Sabathia and Lee. Given professional sports economics, salaries should continue to rise through 2013.

"There aren't a lot of No. 1 pitchers in the world," Bowden said.

But the number of teams that could afford Lincecum in free agency might be just as limited.

"It's not like you're looking at 30 clubs," Hart said. "You're probably looking at somewhere between eight and 10. Out of that, how many clubs would Tim want to play for? So you kind of winnow it down."

Doubts about Lincecum's long-term health may also dissuade suitors. Though his supporters marvel at his superior athleticism, skeptics see fragility in his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame. Aficionados view his pitching mechanics as synchronized; detractors believe he's bound for a career-ending arm injury.

According to STATS, Lincecum has thrown an NL-high 14,164 pitches since beginning his first full season in the Majors in 2008. So he has proven his durability or eroded his physical capacities, depending on one's point of view.

Hart mentioned the cautionary tale of left-hander Johan Santana, who encountered shoulder problems a year after signing a six-year, $137.5 million contract with the Mets before the 2008 season. From 2004 to 2008, Santana averaged 229 innings per season, but he worked only 166 2/3 innings in 2009 and 199 in 2010 before missing all of last year.

"Very athletic, very similar to Tim," Hart said, referring to Santana. "This guy hadn't even sniffed the disabled list. Safe bet, right? Well, how do you think the Mets are looking right now?"

The Giants' caution and Lincecum's patience for a bigger payday could result in a one-year settlement prompted by the arbitration-driven numbers the sides exchanged last week (San Francisco offered $17 million, Lincecum asked for $21.5 million), or a two-year deal at most. That might satisfy both parties for now.

"In reality, the Giants have the ability to keep their No. 1 guy for the next two years without having to go long-term," Hart said.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.