Tim Lincecum had shown signs of turning a corner since the start of June, as he dominated at times and put up four quality starts. However, on Saturday, July 13, Lincecum officially turned a corner.
He twirled his first career no-hitter, one that salvaged a first half chock full of shaky starts. Lincecum has struggled in some outings, and he hasn't consistently performed like the same pitcher who won two Cy Young Awards. However, his off-speed stuff has been just as sharp, and he has shown more and more flashes of the control and command that propelled him to glory.
And, for the first time in two years, he is consistently carving up opposing hitters.
In his no-hitter, Lincecum retired 13 batters by way of the strikeout. He generated a remarkable 29 swings and misses, and he struck out six batters in a row at one point. Lincecum kept hitters off-balance with a slew of devastating off-speed pitches and well-located fastballs, and he consistently commanded all of his pitches for the first time in a long time.
Lapses in command have derailed some of Lincecum's starts, but recently, he has done a good job. Since the start of June, he has compiled a stellar 3.15 ERA. He has also completed seven innings in four of those starts.
In other words, Lincecum won't be going to the bullpen anytime soon.
While Lincecum's sixth-inning struggles, which have soiled a multitude of solid outings this season, have brought up durability concerns, those have been put to bed. He conquered his sixth-inning woes in his no-hitter, and he continued to dominate in the late innings.
He has only pitched into the eighth inning once this season, but he dominated in it. Lincecum has an 0.84 ERA in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings (combined), and he hasn't given up a run in any of those innings since May 7.
Manager Bruce Bochy has tended to pull the plug on Lincecum when his pitch count gets high, as he averaged fewer than 100 pitches heading into Saturday's game. However, Lincecum appeared to be fine pitching in the later innings on Saturday. Despite hurling 148 pitches, he never missed a beat.
And that's great news for the Giants and potentially another team.
If Lincecum can duplicate his performance from prior years, he will be in line for a decent contract come this offseason. Unless he unexpectedly agrees on a contract extension with the Giants, he will become a free agent.
Lincecum, who turned down a five-year, $100 million deal before the 2012 season, won't receive that kind of money this offseason. However, he will still cash in with a solid contract. He has a great track record, and his 3.34 FIP (which is an ERA-like number based on factors a pitcher can control) portrays his excellence this season.
Durability concerns have been discussed regarding Lincecum, but his late-inning performance so far has put those concerns to rest. He has pitched late into games effectively lately, as he is averaging about six and two-thirds innings per start in his last six outings.
Lincecum has also controlled two-strike counts and put on multiple strikeout clinics. He struck out 24 batters in 16 innings against the Padres and the New York Mets, and he has struck out 44 in his last 33.2 innings.
In other words, Lincecum is rekindling his strikeout stuff. That's bad news for his opponents.
On the other hand, it's good for the Giants, who will benefit from Lincecum's production for some time.
However, there is a small possibility of Lincecum producing for another team this year. According to Fox Sports' Jon Morosi, Lincecum has received interest from teams such as the Detroit Tigers.
Lincecum's trade value is higher than it has been in a long time, and the Giants could acquire some much-needed prospects by trading Lincecum. However, if the Giants were to swing a deal involving Lincecum, it would send a message that they aren't poised to make a run at a second consecutive championship.
While the Giants are 6.5 games back of the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks, the anemic NL West is anyone's division. San Francisco is riding positive momentum into the All-Star break, as it took three of four games from the San Diego Padres and piled up 23 runs.
The Giants could sell someone like reliever Javier Lopez, who is used sparingly and can't do much other than retire southpaws. Lopez isn't a huge name, and trading him wouldn't cost the team.
Trading Lincecum, however, would hurt the team. In addition, it wouldn't sit too well with fans and potentially his teammates, who might feel slighted by the front office selling a key piece. The Giants' championship hopes are slim, but without Lincecum, they would evaporate.
In other words, the Giants would have trouble replacing Lincecum.
If the Giants traded him, they would have lots of rotation troubles with Barry Zito, Chad Gaudin (who hasn't done too well in his career as a starter), Matt Cain (who has a 5.06 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (who posted a horrid 7.19 ERA before getting injured).
Zito has averaged about five and one-thirds innings per start, has the 13th-worst ERA in baseball, and is finishing off a seven-year, $126 million contract, so the Giants aren't going to be able to unload him and his contract in a trade. Zito is the weak link in the Giants rotation, and at the moment, Lincecum is the pride of the group.
But while the Giants need Lincecum to fill a hole now, they won't need him next year. He may not be in the Giants rotation next year.
In fact, he may not be in any rotation next year.
Teams are targeting Lincecum as a reliever. The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers are two contenders in need of late-inning relief help, and Lincecum, who posted a glistening 0.69 ERA in the bullpen last postseason, could help out there.
If Lincecum doesn't get the money he wants as a starter this offseason, he could end up pitching in the bullpen in 2014. He is durable, and he could handle a heavy workload pitching in relief.
Still, even if Lincecum becomes a reliever and pitches 100 innings in relief, he wouldn't pitch anywhere close to as much as he would in the rotation. Because of the fewer innings, he could throw his fastball with more velocity out of the bullpen.
According to Brooks Baseball, he averaged 92.86 mph on his heater in Game 3 of the World Series, when he pitched two and one-thirds innings in relief. This season, he has averaged just 90.81 mph on his fastball. The extra velocity benefited Lincecum in Game 3 of the Fall Classic, as he generated eight swings and misses in just 32 pitches.
His bullpen stint was a success, but he is where he is now because of his success in the rotation. For the first time since 2011, Lincecum has hit his stride, and he looks very similar to the guy who piled up a multitude of accolades as a starter in his early years.
And that bodes well for him.
It will be interesting to watch what happens to Lincecum this offseason. He will likely sign for a good amount of money, and he could sign as either a starter or a reliever. In addition, he could sign with a team other than San Francisco.
The Giants have other options on the market, and they might shy away from overpaying in a bidding war for Lincecum. While he isn't ready now, Eric Surkamp will likely be ready to compete for a rotation spot next season. The Giants have solid pitching depth in the minor leagues for next year, and they could definitely fill Lincecum's rotation spot in 2014.
However, the Giants still have a shot at winning the NL West. To do so, San Francisco needs every game it can get now, and it won't be able to win enough with Zito and without Lincecum. However, next year, it won't need Lincecum as much.
There still are teams in need of starting pitching and late-inning relief help. Because of his track record, his versatility and other teams' needs, Lincecum will likely end up signing a huge contract.
In the end, he'll likely stick with the Giants this season and end up with the team that wins the bidding war. As Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area noted, Lincecum is open to pitching in relief.
And if he doesn't get a desirable contract as a starter, he could end up pitching in relief.
Lincecum's career is at a crossroads, and it could turn in multiple different directions. The Giants could sign him, but they would have to fork over a lot of money. Lincecum is loved by Giants fans, but fans don't make the team's decisions. He could definitely be pitching elsewhere next season.
And he could definitely be pitching in the bullpen. At this point, only time will reveal the answer. The only thing we know for sure is that his career will change dramatically this offseason.