Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, the question is certainly worth asking. If two-time NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum continues to struggle as he did for most of the 2012 season, how long will the Giants continue throwing him out there every fifth day and hoping he turns it around? And would they consider moving him to the bullpen and going outside the organization for a rotation replacement?
While his one 2012 playoff start resulted in another poor performance (4.2 IP, 4 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 3 K), he was fantastic in five relief appearances (13 IP, ER, 3 H, 2 BB, 17 K). Maybe he’s just better suited for the bullpen now for some reason.
The group of in-house options, however, aren’t going to make the Giants rush to move Lincecum into a relief role. Veteran journeymen Boof Bonser and Yusmeiro Petit will likely be in the Triple-A Fresno rotation, along with prospects Chris Heston and Michael Kickham, who each performed very well in Double-A last season.
At least one has to be capable of stringing together some quality starts if given the chance. But I’m guessing the Giants will opt for more of a sure thing if they were to give up on Lincecum.
Here are some potential trade candidates that the Giants could target as Lincecum’s replacement. Unfortunately, there are no top-of-the-rotation starters I’d expect to be available, and I really don’t think the Giants have the farm system to acquire one if there was.
Just remember that they’re not trying to replace the pre-2012 Lincecum. He might be long gone. In reality, they don’t need another ace. A reliable starter who can give the team consistent quality starts should keep them competitive and allow the bullpen not to be overworked.
Scott Feldman, Chicago Cubs
With their offseason additions, the Cubs set themselves up nicely to have a starting pitcher or two to shop around to the highest bidder just before the trade deadline. If Matt Garza comes back healthy in May and Scott Baker isn’t set back too far in his return from Tommy John surgery, they’ll have a logjam in the rotation.
Feldman has spent his entire career in Texas, where balls tend to fly out of the yard. The Cubs signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal in hopes that a move to the NL Central and away from the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington will see a big improvement on his career 4.81 ERA.
In a very small sample size, the 30-year-old has pitched very well in the ballpark that would matter most if he came over to the Giants. He’s faced 50 batters over four appearances in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, yielding only 12 hits while walking three and striking out 12.
The price for Feldman wouldn’t be high if they took on the remainder of his salary. The Cubs won’t get a top prospect back, but a close to major league ready back-of-the-rotation starter like Heston, Kickham or Justin Fitzgerald (3.22 ERA in 28 Double-A starts last season) might work.
Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs
Garza would be the preferred option, if healthy, over Feldman. For a two-to-three month rental, the Giants probably have the prospects to make a deal happen.
The question is whether they think giving up two of their top prospects for a few months of Garza, who will make $10.25 million in his final season before becoming a free agent, is worth it.
If the Cubs ask for one of the team's top three pitching prospects, Clayton Blackburn, Kyle Crick or last year’s top draft pick, Chris Stratton, and a top position player prospect from a group of catcher Andrew Susac, shortstop Joe Panik and center fielder Gary Brown, would the Giants end up regretting it down the road?
If they're in a tight pennant race and the pitching staff isn't as strong as they were in 2012, the Giants certainly don't have the offense to make up for it. I think they'd go in a different direction, but I wouldn't completely rule it out.
Shaun Marcum, New York Mets
He’s not exactly the poster boy for good health after missing time in 2012 with elbow trouble, already having dealt with biceps tendinitis earlier this spring and currently on the disabled list with shoulder and neck discomfort.
But if he can make it back to the Mets' rotation in the next few weeks, he’ll have plenty of time to showcase his strong middle-of-the-rotation talent to teams shopping for starting pitchers.
Since missing the 2009 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the 31-year-old Marcum is 33-19 with a 3.62 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 7.5 K/9 in 85 starts. He’s delivered a quality start (6 IP or more, 3 ER or less) in 61 percent of those starts.
To acquire Marcum, who is on a one-year, $4 million deal with another $4 million that could be earned through incentives, the Giants could offer the Mets Triple-A outfielder Francisco Peguero, who was the 10th-ranked prospect in the organization by Baseball Prospectus coming into the season, along with a lower-level prospect.
Peguero’s ceiling isn’t high, but the Mets’ system isn’t deep with outfield talent in the upper minors, and he could at least fill a bench role by 2014.
Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays
After losing the battle for the last rotation spot to Roberto Hernandez this spring, Niemann is currently in the Rays' bullpen. The 30-year-old belongs in a big league rotation, though.
Over his four full seasons in Tampa Bay, Niemann has a 38-24 record with a 4.05 ERA, 2.9 BB/9 and 6.7 K/9 in 528.1 innings. He doesn’t pitch deep into games, as has been the case with Marcum, but the Giants have the bullpen depth to make up for it if they feel Niemann is the best option available.
The cost for Niemann, who is under contract through the 2014 season when Lincecum and Barry Zito will likely have signed as free agents elsewhere, might be very similar to Feldman’s asking price of a potential back-of-the-rotation starter named Fitzgerald, Heston or Kickham.
Bud Norris, Houston Astros
Norris might be one of the biggest names that is expected to be available in a trade later in the season. He’s the Astros’ No. 1 starter, but he’d fit perfectly fine behind Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong in the Giants' rotation.
After an impressive Opening Day win against the Texas Rangers, Norris’ value appears to be on the rise. An extreme fly-ball pitcher, the 28-year-old could thrive in a division with three very pitcher-friendly ballparks (SF, SD, LAD).
Since he won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season, the Astros won’t be settling for potential back-of-the-rotation starters or fourth outfielders. The Giants would likely have to give up Blackburn, Crick or Stratton.
All three profile as at least midrotation starters and either could instantly become the Astros’ top pitching prospect. If the Giants would part ways with one of the three to go along with a midlevel prospect, they should be able to land Norris.