But Lincecum fell off the table in 2012, posting the worst season of his career. In 33 starts, he compiled a 10-15 record and 5.18 ERA. Though Lincecum was still striking out opposing batters at a strong pace, his rates of walks (4.4) and hits (8.9) allowed per nine innings were his worst ever.
The Freak became weak.
However, there was some redemption for Lincecum in the postseason. Giants manager Bruce Bochy left his former ace out of the playoff rotation, but that gave Lincecum the opportunity to be an extremely effective reliever. In five appearances, he allowed one run in 13 innings for an 0.69 ERA, also racking up 17 strikeouts.
After a season in which he struggled as a starter but excelled as a reliever, might San Francisco envision its star pitcher in a new role next year?
According to Bochy, there's little chance of that. He told USA Today's John Perrotto before Game 4 of the World Series that the thought of making Lincecum a full-time reliever never crossed his mind.
"Timmy is an incredible talent and he's a great starter," Bochy said to Perrotto in a different article. "It just so happened that we thought he could really help us in the bullpen, where he's done an amazing job, but he's a starter and that's where he is going next year."
For one thing, it's an issue of economics for the Giants.
The team will pay Lincecum $22 million next season in the final year of his contract. Relievers don't make that kind of money. Not even closers. Besides, Lincecum wouldn't be the closer in the Giants bullpen.
Sergio Romo seized that role this season and doesn't figure to give it up. Former closer Brian Wilson will likely return to San Francisco after having Tommy John surgery and could conceivably win his job back if Bochy decided to open a competition for it. Santiago Casilla also initially pitched well as the closer before ceding the job to Romo.
The Giants certainly aren't going to pay $22 million for a middle reliever.
Despite Lincecum's success as a reliever—and the tremendous matchup problem he creates for opposing lineups with his multi-pitch repertoire and unusual pitching motion—a pitcher who can give a team 200 innings is far more valuable to a team than one who might throw 70 frames. Lincecum has surpassed 200 innings in five of his seven MLB seasons.
The Giants won't take 200 innings out of their starting rotation. But even if they did, who would take Lincecum's spot among the team's starting five? Would general manager Brian Sabean have to then pursue a starter on the open market? Why do that when Bochy can, at the very least, slot Lincecum as the No. 4 starter?
Granted, the expectation is for Lincecum to pitch as the ace his $22 million salary implies.
If he is no longer that pitcher, Matt Cain has already taken over as San Francisco's No. 1 starter. Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have become top-of-the-rotation pitchers as well.
Neither the Giants nor Lincecum have to—pardon the pun—freak out if he's no longer an elite starting pitcher. This team just won the World Series without Lincecum at his best.
Well, Lincecum and his agent might freak out a bit if he hits the open market coming off another poor season. He'll almost certainly regret not taking a longer-term offer from the Giants when it was available. But that's not really San Francisco's problem, except for the fact that it paid him to be a pitcher he no longer is in the short term.
Could the Giants consider trading Lincecum? Teams in need of starting pitching would surely listen, given his track record of success. But concerns about his health, mechanics and pitching away from a pitcher friendly home ballpark would likely be raised.
Additionally, how many clubs would be willing to take on that $22 million salary and face letting him leave after the season as a free agent? And if the Giants were going to eat some of that money, why not just pay him to pitch in their starting rotation anyway? As already mentioned, they need him.
Having said that, maybe Sabean should call up the Seattle Mariners and see if they'd be interested in adding hometown boy Lincecum to their roster. Hey, it's worth a try and you never know what another team might offer.
But it's in the Giants' best interest to bring Lincecum back as a starting pitcher next season. Even if the team can get away with pitching him out of the bullpen during the postseason, he will be needed during the long slog of a 162-game season and the 33 starts he can contribute to a rotation.
There's also no better situation for Lincecum. He'll pitch at least one more season in the pitcher friendly AT&T Park and be part of a championship rotation that no longer requires him to be the No. 1 guy. He can just focus on trying to get better before he hits free agency.
This relationship may end eventually, but it's going to last at least one more season.
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