The San Francisco Giants’ season is still rolling, so offseason transactions probably aren’t general manager Brian Sabean’s top priority right now. But sometime in the next two or three weeks Sabean will be turning his attention to free agents, trade possibilities and his long-term plans for some current players.
Sabean’s biggest decision could involve Tim Lincecum, who will be a free agent after 2013. Having already signed Matt Cain to a lucrative long-term contract, and with Buster Posey likely to demand a monstrous contract in the near future, the Giants have to decide whether they can, or even want, to keep Lincecum around long-term.
If not, they have to determine whether to let him play out the final year of his contract or trade him—possibly for a shortstop, a first baseman or an outfielder.
The problem is that, despite winning two Cy Young awards and leading the National League in strikeouts three times in his first five seasons, Lincecum has become a precarious commodity. During his disastrous 2012 season, his ERA nearly doubled from the previous season, prompting manager Bruce Bochy to demote Lincecum to the bullpen for the postseason.
Of course, he could do a lot to repair his value when he makes his first start of the 2012 postseason against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, or he could further damage it. Either way, a potential trade partner would have to determine whether Lincecum can regain some of his early-career magic.
So, can he? There are few cases of great pitchers stumbling so drastically at such a young age (Lincecum is 28 years old), and even fewer examples of players returning to form afterward.
Dwight Gooden was a superstar at 19 years old then lost his dominant stuff before turning 30. But that was attributed to drug addiction, which adds an asterisk of sorts to his situation.
Dennis Eckersley might be the closest comparison to Lincecum. Eckersley was twice an All-Star and twice a Cy Young candidate as a young starting pitcher.
Then during his age-28 season, he posted a miserable 5.61 ERA. Eckersley started for three more years, but he wasn’t an effective pitcher again until Tony LaRussa made him a closer in Oakland.
Whatever the reason for Lincecum’s rough season, he has two significant motivators to bounce back in 2012: redemption and his pending free agency. While that could offer some solace to potential Lincecum suitors, his future worth remains a major unknown.
A year ago he would have demanded a despot’s ransom. But now his value is based largely on faith that he will become an effective starting pitcher again.
Assuming other teams still believe in Lincecum’s abilities, here are five scenarios the Giants should consider for trading Lincecum this offseason.