Tim Lincecum’s Future as Starter or Reliever

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Because Tim Lincecum had such a poor season and has been effective as a reliever in the post-season, there’s been speculation that his future might be in the bullpen. Let’s look into my crystal baseball with facts and realistic analysis on the side.

The age-old debates regarding Lincecum

He cannot escape his diminutive stature, nor his stage-father. Lincecum was taken 10th overall by the Giants in the 2006 draft and the Mariners have forever been roasted by their fans for taking Brandon Morrow instead of Lincecum, who was a local kid and starred at the University of Washington. But Morrow is a prototype who’s 6’3” while Lincecum is listed at 5’11”. For the record, I would have taken Morrow as well.

What made Lincecum’s perceived risks riskier was his father Chris Lincecum’s status as Tim’s one-and-only coach and that his son’s motion and training regimens were not to be interfered with in any way. All things being equal, most teams would shy away from the smaller pitcher, but would take him anyway if they liked him better. If you add in the presence of these rules from Lincecum’s father and it’s understandable that the Mariners chose to go with Morrow and other teams chose different players.

The Giants looked brilliant with the hands-off strategy when Lincecum arrived in the big leagues in 2007 with a near 100-mph fastball and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He has been a top pitcher in baseball until this season. Then he started struggling and the size excuse; the inability of the Giants’ staff to make adjustments to his issues; and questions of longevity, overuse at a young age, and durability cropped up again.

Truthfully, we have no idea what’s going on with Lincecum’s mechanics, health, fitness, and alterations. It could be that the Giants are more proactive with him than we know; it could be that Tim is no longer going to Chris for advice. (This is not unusual with players who were taught and nurtured by their fathers—Keith Hernandez had long spells of impasse with his father.) Great pitchers have had poor seasons mid-career. Jim Palmer went 7-12 at age 28 in 1974 and rebounded at 29 to win the Cy Young Award in 1975 (and another one in 1976 with 2nd and 3rd place finishes in 1977 and 1978). Bret Saberhagen went 7-12 with an all-around awful year in 1986 the year after winning the Cy Young Award and World Series MVP, but returned to form. Saberhagen was about as small as Lincecum.

Lincecum is not used to poor results. Logically, because he was able to overcome the obstacles to make it this far with his uniqueness, it’s silly to again pigeonhole him for what he’s not as the teams that avoided him in the draft did.

His optimal use

There might come a day that Lincecum will need to move to the bullpen, but that time is not now. He’s 28, not 38. In 2012, he still threw 186 innings and wasn’t on the disabled list. That’s not the 200+ innings with dominance he regularly provided before 2012, but one bad season doesn’t mean you toss the history out as if it never happened. His strikeout rate is what it’s always been. He’s been wild and has allowed more homers than he ever has. That tells me his location is off and that he’s been wild high. His fastball is no longer what it was, but 92 is fast enough to be effective. He has to adjust.

As much of a weapon that Lincecum has been as a reliever this post-season and as poorly as he pitched as a starter, that would not work over a full season. Those 200 innings he provides and reasonable expectation of improvement to something close to what he was from 2007-2011 makes a 2013 move to the bullpen untenable.

Money

Lincecum, with free agency beckoning after 2013, would resist moving to the bullpen based on finances, and he’d be right to do it. The greatest relievers in baseball—Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, among others—don’t get more than $13-15 million per season. Lincecum, in 2013, is due to make $22 million. As a free agent reliever, he does not make anything close to that. As a starter who is 29, will give 200 innings, and might win a CYA? That’s worth $150 million+.

What the Giants need

How are they replacing those 200 innings if they decide to make Lincecum a reliever?

That the Giants are up 3 games to 0 in the World Series and are on the verge of winning a championship is a signal to the rest of baseball as to the lack of importance of a star-level closer. They lost Brian Wilson to elbow surgery early in the season, tried several permutations in the ninth inning before settling on Sergio Romo, who was a 28th round draft choice. Using Lincecum in the post-season as a reliever when he’s slumping as a starter makes sense; using him as a reliever over a full season when he’s at least functional as a starter is absurd.

And Lincecum

It’s been said that Lincecum was not in shape when the season started. It’s not a matter of him arriving fat. I doubt that Lincecum could get fat, but there’s a difference between being fit and being fat. Before, Lincecum could do what he wanted in terms of exercise, diet, and extracurricular substance ingestion (namely pot), and pitch well. Now, as he’s approaching athletic middle-age, he has to take better care of himself. With all that money on the line and the returning motivation to again shove it to his critics, Lincecum is going to dedicate himself to the game and being ready in 2013. He’s a competitor and wants to get paid, so he’s not going to the bullpen. Being a starter is best for everyone involved and that’s where he’ll remain.

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Who Won’t Be Traded At The Deadline?

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Everyone’s coming up with their lists of players who are going to be available or traded at the upcoming MLB trading deadline. I’ve been doing it too and will continue up to the big day, but there are also names floating around that come from anonymous (possibly nonexistent) sources; have reasons to possibly be on the block but actually aren’t; or are pulled out of the air by rumormongers because they can’t think of anything else to write or talk about.

Here are some of the players that are implied to be available, but aren’t and won’t be traded.

Josh Willingham, Twins

The Twins are ready to deal but they’re not going to get rid of every big league player on the roster. They just signed Willingham this past winter, he’s paid reasonably and they wouldn’t get much for him if they did decide to trade him. The days of teams taking on big contracts and giving up significant prospects are over and the Twins aren’t going to pay any of Willingham’s salary.

He’s 33 and is signed through 2014 at $7 million per year. He’s either more valuable for the Twins to keep or to look to trade as the contract winds down.

The Twins aren’t going to have the stomach to rebuild the team completely in an expansion-franchise sense. Willingham can help them in the next two seasons and he’s a good influence on the younger players.

Justin Upton, Diamondbacks

I understand the thinking that the Diamondbacks might listen. Managing general partner Ken Kendrick called Upton out for his mediocre play and GM Kevin Towers listened to offers on Upton shortly after taking over. There’s a logic to doing something drastic when a team with high expectations is struggling, but Upton is only 24 (25 in August); is signed at a reasonable rate ($38.5 million from 2013-2015); and the Diamondbacks still have a good shot at the playoffs despite their poor start.

Upton has a no-trade clause to four teams: the Tigers, A’s, Indians and Royals.

Other teams will call and ask; as he should, Towers might listen to what the offers are; but Upton’s not getting moved.

Alex Gordon, Royals

He’s finally found a defensive home in left field; he’s signed through 2015; is hitting better after a bad luck-infused start; and the Royals aren’t doing the “we’re rebuilding” thing and dumping any and all veterans.

The Royals have something positive building in spite of their stimulus response critics. Gordon is a part of that.

Felix Hernandez, Mariners

They’re not trading him. Forget it.

It’s partially because the Mariners have a load of pitching on the roster and on the way up and need a veteran leader to front the rotation when they’re ready to move from terrible to mediocre to (someday) pretty good, but if they’re letting Ichiro Suzuki go after this season, they don’t want to alienate the fanbase entirely by dumping two fan favorites within months of one another.

Tim Lincecum, Giants

There’s a logic to the idea. He’s been bad this season, somewhat unlucky and his velocity is down. Lincecum is a free agent after the 2013 season and has shown no inclination to sign a long-term deal for one penny less than market value.

One thing that flashed through my head was Cole Hamels and one of the Phillies’ minor league arms (Phillippe Aumont, Trevor May) for Lincecum. The Giants would get an ace (pitching like an ace) for the rest of the season and a young pitcher; the Phillies would have Lincecum for this year and next.

But the Giants aren’t going to trade their most popular and marketable player regardless of how poor he’s going.

David Wright, Mets

Wright is having an MVP-quality season and is back to the player he was until the Mets moved into Citi Field and turned Wright into a nervous wreck who altered his swing and approach to account for the stadium’s dimensions. The Mets are hovering around contention and aren’t drawing well. Trading Wright would throw the white flag up on the season. That’s not going to happen.

He’s signed for 2013 at $16 million and the Mets are going to give him an extension comparable to Ryan Zimmerman’s with the Nationals. He’s going nowhere.

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Tim Lincecum and the Giants Rewrite the New Age Rules

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Tim Lincecum has never been a conventional pitcher.

From the way he and his stage-father dictated to teams that were interested in drafting him that there would be no deviation in his unique motion, to the Giants decision not to treat him as a delicate flower that would disintegrate at a strong wind by establishing ludicrous and random edicts on his workload, Lincecum’s always been different and the Giants, to their credit, have enabled him.

Unlike other pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, there was no long-term plan to count innings and pitches in a manner that was more applicable to keeping him from getting hurt and shielding the organization from criticism at the expense of developing him to be the best he could be. Lincecum pitched in 13 minor league games before heading to San Francisco. In the minors and majors in 2007, he threw a total of 177 innings. In 2008, he logged 227 and won the first of back-to-back Cy Young Awards. His innings totals have been over 212 in every year since his rookie campaign.

For an organization that’s been called antiquated in their personnel decisions, the Giants may be leading a full circle revival to a return of the old-school days by letting young pitchers pitch and not nitpicking their innings and pitch counts so they can stay healthy when they’re 28 and on the free agent market so the Yankees and Red Sox can give them the free agent money a team like the Giants can’t.

That Lincecum iconoclasm and Giants’ “antiquated” methods are extending to their contract negotiations.

If the performance of Lincecum were replicated in another venue, the team and player would have come to an agreement on a long-term deal after the first year or two of his career. Most would want the mutual security of a guarantee for the player and cost certainty for the team.

Not Lincecum.

He’s willing to put his money where his mouth is and function on what amounts to a biennial back-and-forth of threatening to go to the arbitration table before hammering out a very lucrative—and short-term—contract.

Confident enough to expect to continue having the same success he’s had so far, Lincecum deviates from the norm on and off the field. This uniqueness has led to him becoming something of a cultural phenomenon. He’s extremely small for a pitcher in today’s game; he shuns conventional postgame recovery tactics like icing his arm; and that personality extends all the way to his long flowing black hair and alternative, borderline hippie style.

Because he’s left to his own devices as a player, he’s not subject to the self-doubt that permeates the psyche of even the most established players.

With that in mind, he refused the Giants overtures to sign a 5-year, $100 million contract to buy out his remaining arbitration years and first three years of free agency.

This would’ve provided him with a 9-figure payday even if he never threw another pitch—something that’s a possibility with any pitcher regardless of his dedication and the team’s diligence in keeping him healthy.

But he decided that he wanted a shorter-term deal and to take his chances.

With that in mind, Lincecum and the Giants have reached a verbal agreement on a 2-year, $40.5 million deal to avoid arbitration for this year and next.

He wants to maximize his dollars and if he happens to get hurt before the day he’s on the open market, so be it.

For someone who puts forth the public face of the gentle soul who’d be comfortable living in a commune, Lincecum is ruthless on the field and an unfettered capitalist off it.

Most players would’ve taken the money and ran.

But most players aren’t allowed to think for themselves and figure out their issues on their own without interference from the front office, managers and coaches.

Lincecum is taking a risk by going the short-term route and waiting out his opportunity at free agency, but if he maintains his level of work, he’s going to make a lot more money than he would if he settled for safety rather than trusting himself and what he’s been taught.

The logic on the Giants part seems to be that if his bullets are going to be spent, they’ll be spent as a Giant.

For Lincecum, he’s investing in himself and his belief that the techniques taught to him by his dad will yield long-term durability.

In an age of baseball pitchers being something of an underdeveloped nation through overprotective paranoia, it’s somewhat refreshing.

No.

It’s very refreshing.

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Tim Lincecum Trade Pa-Troll

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*NOTE 8:22 AM, NYC: The original piece on Bleacher Report that was linked was significantly altered after mine was published. The words “herky jerky” were removed and the entire context was changed.

Reading the teaser headline and you’d automatically take the “news” on a slow day as an inviting and irresistible lure to read the article.

But clicking and reading reveals the truth and the truth is that there’s no “there” there.

I saw the mentioning of the words “Tim Lincecum” and “trade” on Twitter and instantly knew it was nonsense and/or trolling because: A) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum; B) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum; and C) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum.

Being it’s a slow day (do the math), I checked the search engines to see if there was anything to explain this silliness in a sensible, reasonable fashion.

I found this on Bleacher Report in which a Lincecum trade is speculated.

Sort of.

In the next two years.

But not now.

Of course it’s ludicrous in every sense.

It’s ludicrous that Lincecum and Barry Zito are compared in any way.

It’s ludicrous that Lincecum is treated like a normal pitcher.

It’s ludicrous that the Giants are going to start a rebuild in the next two seasons.

Ludicrous.

How do you compare Lincecum to Zito? With the Athletics, Zito was a contact pitcher who benefited from being on a very good team and having great luck on balls in play. Lincecum has left lineups in ruins. Zito’s fastball could never approach the Lincecum fast lane in spite of Lincecum’s fastball having dipped slightly from its upper-90s heyday; he’s still plenty fast enough to strikeout 230 hitters a year. Zito is trying to trick people and get by on guile.

Zito’s margin of error was nonexistent and it’s worse now; Lincecum gets by when he’s off his game because of pure quality of stuff.

Lincecum cannot be compared to “normal” pitchers, nor can he be placed in any specific category because he’s been treated differently since the time he signed. The Giants were not allowed to alter Lincecum’s mechanics; this was one of the reasons so many teams were reluctant to draft Lincecum. It’s the same way today even as he has two Cy Young Awards and a championship ring; to this day I wonder what pitching coach Dave Righetti says to Lincecum when the pitcher is struggling and Righetti visits the mound. Do they talk about girls? The weather? Fisherman’s Wharf?

Because Lincecum has always been left to his own (and his dad’s) devices, he’s something of a closed society about which nothing can be physically determined in a sociological baseball study. The conventional rules don’t apply to him and, by extension, nor do the concerns.

With that in mind, it cannot be said that the skinny pitcher with the unique motion is going to replicate other pitchers whose arms blew out in year three of an eight-year contract. He’s altered all the rules so far and can’t be pigeonholed.

As for a Giants rebuild, forget it.

You may have a short memory of the way GM Brian Sabean runs his club, but going back to the Barry Bonds years, it was always build around the stars; ignore the draft and minor league system; and try to win with veterans to augment Bonds.

In short, Build Around Barry.

The concept that Sabean is “stupid” because he’s old-school and follows a blueprint that doesn’t emanate from new age statistics is easier to process than trying to understand what he’s doing, but if you look at it, it makes sense.

Bonds was the most dangerous hitter in baseball and the Giants were contenders as long as he was around; it made perfect sense to run the team the way they did during that time. When Bonds was gone, the Giants rebuilt through the draft with pitching and they finally broke through and won the World Series that eluded them with Bonds. Sabean isn’t going to tear the thing down by trading Lincecum for a package of youngsters because that’s not what he does. He’ll ride it as long as he can and move on.

Simply because there’s a media-created “genius” across the Bay who always has a reason (excuse) for doing the things he does isn’t a determinative factor in which GM is better. If you go by the flexibility in knowing what he has and what to do with it, Sabean is a successful GM also functioning under a budget, but without the lusty propaganda.

As long as the Giants have two star pitchers, Matt Cain and Lincecum; an All-Star talent, Madison Bumgarner; and a top-tier closer, Brian Wilson, they’re going to be competitive if they hit at all. Whereas they were built around Bonds 10 years ago, now they’re Timmy’s Team.

The linked column doesn’t stop with simple practical idiocy; it delves into unprofessional randomness by ignorantly calling Lincecum’s motion “herky jerky”.

Doug Fister is herky jerky; Lincecum is a Tom Seaver-like study in using one’s whole body to generate power.

Then it says: “You give an eight-year contract to a fully built workhorse, not a small-framed pothead.”

You can question his size—I’ve done it myself—but to call him a “pothead” considering what some other pitchers have indulged in (Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD) is a cheap shot to “prove” a non-existent theory and add a tier to the reasons to trade him.

These “rumors” of a Lincecum trade are crafted by those who attempt to see into the “future” with their mystical powers of prescience and are providing generalities that can be adjusted after the fact to make it appear as if they were “right”.

On a quiet day on the baseball front, it’s a non-story to accumulate webhits and pageviews—something that Lincecum’s name is always good for.

Honest speculation of a possibility is one thing; a flashy headline designed to fool the reader isn’t.

It’s the perfect storm—at least until you read the content and realize you’ve been played. Poorly.

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