This is the second straight year that Tim Lincecum hasn’t just been a disappointment, but he’s been outright bad. His old-school numbers—wins/losses and ERA—are terrible and have been so for the last two seasons. His peripherals are not as bad as all that. His ground ball rates, strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed have been consistent throughout his whole career, but the sum of the parts does not bode well for the future. His velocity is down from what it was when he was winning Cy Young Awards, but it’s in the same vicinity it’s been for the past four seasons, two of which he was still a top pitcher. His breaking stuff isn’t as sharp and he’s had to rely on his fastball and changeup. What is concerning however is that his line drive percentage is up and the hitters are squaring up on him with greater consistency and appear to have figured him out in a way that they couldn’t from 2007 to 2011. It’s becoming clear that Lincecum is nowhere near what he once was and that pitcher isn’t going to return anytime soon with a mechanical tweak, greater intensity, a “get it back” fitness program, or the realization that he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the season and has cost himself about $100 million with his results in 2012-2013.
In short, he’s lost his specialness that allowed him to get away with being a hands-off entity for the Giants coaching staff who was only allowed to have his mechanics fiddled with by his father. The questions surrounding him when he was drafted—his size, unique mechanics and training regimens—are no longer seen as wink and nod quirky as a point of salesmanship and charm. Now he’s just a short, skinny pitcher who’s not that good anymore.
As we approach the summer, the question may not be, “How can the Giants fix Lincecum?” It might evolve into, “Will the Giants trade Lincecum?”
If you think it’s crazy, it’s not.
The Giants have built up a tremendous amount of capital with their two World Series wins in three years and could get away with trading a personality like Lincecum as long as he’s not performing. With the titles, they’re still not a huge market club that can afford to spend gobs of money to maintain the championship template. Lincecum is a free agent at the end of the season and at this point the Giants are unlikely to either offer him arbitration because he’d probably take it or give him a long-term contract paying him for past accomplishments which will presumably be what he expects. As with any player, there was a dual-sided risk to Lincecum shunning the Giants attempts to sign him to a long-term contract at below-market value: he might not continue performing the way he did when it seemed like a sure thing to sign him for 5-7 years and $90+ million years before he hit free agency. And he hasn’t.
At the end of the season, the Giants have Lincecum, Barry Zito, Hunter Pence and Javier Lopez coming off the books. They’ll have money to spend and it certainly doesn’t appear as if they’re going to spend it on a declining Lincecum. The hottest name bandied about as a trade candidate has been Cliff Lee. The Phillies are going to eventually have to start rebuilding their farm system and get their payroll down. The best way to do that is to get a bounty for Lee if they come to the conclusion that they’re out of it by mid-July. Maybe the Giants would have interest in Lee in exchange for Lincecum and prospects or the clubs could find another team interested in coming to a three-way deal that would send Lee to the Giants. The Yankees would love to ship pending free agent Phil Hughes out of town, he’d benefit from the friendly pitchers parks in the NL West in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, is from the West Coast, and he’d cost a fraction of what Lincecum will as a free agent. Lincecum would certainly be better than Hughes as a Yankee, he’d fill the park, and the change of scenery might wake him up for the rest of the season.
There are options that would help the Giants now and in the future. Given Lincecum’s struggles and that this is increasingly looking like his last year in San Francisco, they have to explore them.
Like the child actor who loses his appeal when he hits puberty, “Whatchoo tawkin’ ‘bout Willis?!?” goes from funny to disturbing and Lincecum’s uniqueness goes from part of his charm to a significant series of performance issues that no one seems to be able to fix. He’s hit puberty as a pitcher and it’s not cute anymore. It might be time that the Freakshow in San Francisco gets canceled before the end of the summer season.