Lincecum has now allowed 17 hits, seven walks and 13 earned runs in 10.2 innings this spring en route to a 10.97 ERA and 2.25 WHIP. After Lincecum finished dead last in the National League amongst qualified starters in ERA last year, the Giants have to be concerned about their former Cy Young award winner even though spring training numbers don't count.
Last spring, Barry Zito had a 7.91 ERA following a disappointing 2011 season. He recovered from his spring struggles to throw a complete game shutout in his first start of the season at Coors Field.
Zito had a solid regular season before pitching the Giants to crucial postseason victories in Game 5 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series. Zito's story of redemption last year despite his spring training struggles is proof that spring numbers are virtually irrelevant. Yet there's no getting around the fact that Lincecum hasn't looked good this spring.
He was sidelined with a blister issue that put him behind schedule. He looked good at the beginning of his first outing back from the blister problem two weeks ago before tiring in the fourth inning. His fastball was up to 94 miles per hour in the first inning, and while he didn't hold that velocity, he was able to consistently drive the fastball down in the zone before losing his command against the final two hitters.
In his next start he didn't flash the same velocity and he couldn't get his fastball down in the zone. He consistently left his 88-91 MPH fastball at the waist or above and he was hit hard as a result despite flashing a plus curveball and changeup. His start on Saturday against the A's was more of the same.
Catcher Buster Posey told CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly in reference to Lincecum's outing on Saturday, “For me, the heater was just up in the zone...That was the main thing.”
Fastball command is what plagued Lincecum last season, and that's why his spring struggles are troubling. His poor spring results are being caused by exactly what led him to have the worst season of his career last year.
Earlier in his career, fastball command was less important because he had enough velocity to make up for location mistakes. Now that his fastball velocity has dropped from an average of 94 MPH when he first came into the big leagues to an average of 90 MPH last year, location is much more significant.
He just can't reach back and blow the fastball by people anymore. He can still succeed pitching at 88-91 MPH, but he'll have to be much more precise with the placement of his fastball within the zone.
However, he has yet to show an increase in command or control to make up for the velocity decline. Last year, he set a career high in walk rate by walking 4.35 batters per nine innings (W/9)—showing that his control has actually declined. He also allowed a career high .767 OPS and 23 home runs last season—which suggests that he wasn't throwing quality pitches within the strike zone.
Lincecum's rough season last year and his slow start to spring training has led to some clamoring for the Giants to sign free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse. It's certainly an enticing option given that Lohse seems to be on the opposite career trajectory that Lincecum is on.
Lohse entered the 2011 season with a career 4.79 ERA and only one good season on his resume. Yet over the last two years he's appeared to have found something. He's gone 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA that is the 15th best in baseball and a 1.80 W/9 rate that is sixth best during that time frame.
However, don't expect Lohse to ride in to San Francisco and save the day. According to Buster Olney of ESPN via Twitter, the Scott Boras client is still seeking a payday of around $15 million per season. There's just no way that the team has $15 million sitting around with one week left before opening day. If Lohse's price had come down with the lack of demand for his services, perhaps it would be a different story.
Even if the Giants did have the extra cash, signing Lohse and moving Lincecum to the bullpen would be very difficult to pull off in practice.
Would Lincecum accept that decision in his final year before free agency? Would the Giants want to pay $22 million for a relief pitcher? Would general manager Brian Sabean feel comfortable asking ownership to further increase payroll and basically admit the last contract he gave Lincecum was a mistake? The answer to all three of those questions is almost assuredly a resounding '"no."
The Giants are paying Lincecum $22 million to pitch like the ace he once was. They aren't going to turn around and pay someone else $15 million one week before the season to replace him in the rotation.
Thus, the only real option at this point is for the Giants to stick with Lincecum the way they stuck with Zito last spring. Hopefully, he'll throw a complete game shutout in his first start of the season to put all doubts to rest.
That doesn't mean they shouldn't find some cheaper rotation depth just in case. They don't have one starter on the 40-man roster with any big league experience behind the starting five from last season.
Until Lincecum definitively proves he can command his fastball and succeed again, the Giants should be creating a contingency plan. However, there's not enough money in the budget for a luxury item like Lohse this late in the game.