Has Tim Lincecum walked off the mound as a Giant for the last time?
Last offseason, San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean spent the winter keeping a championship team intact.
Sabean re-signed key free agents Jeremy Affeldt, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro. He also gave contract extensions to Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Buster Posey.
After the Giants finished 2013 with a record of 76-86, Sabean will have to do more than bring the band back together for another run this winter. However, the first order of business for the Giants will be to make evaluations on their own free agents including Tim Lincecum, Chad Gaudin and Javier Lopez. The Giants also have a club option on Ryan Vogelsong.
The odds are strong that the Giants will be able to keep Lincecum, Lopez and Gaudin. If they want Vogelsong back, he'll be theirs to keep via the club option.
However, it's an open question whether or not bringing Vogelsong back for $6.5 million is a good idea after he posted a 5.73 ERA over 19 starts last year. His velocity was down nearly two miles per hour from 2012, and not coincidentally, his strikeout rate was down by nearly six percent.
Other clubs aren't likely to be lining up to sign Vogelsong after his dismal showing in 2013. Thus, the best course of action for the Giants is to decline the option and try to work out a lesser contract or even a minor league deal with the 36-year-old righty.
Before the end of the regular season, the Giants kept one of their top hitters off the market by re-signing Hunter Pence to a five-year, $90 million deal. The Giants then turned their focus to re-signing Lincecum, who is arguably the most popular player with the club's fan base.
Giants VP Bobby Evans said of re-signing Lincecum (h/t Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area), "We’ve begun those discussions and hopefully there’s an opportunity to bring Timmy back and in short order. That’s our hope. We don’t intend to wait if Timmy’s willing to work with us right now. And that’s the impression I’m getting—that they’re willing to work with us."
If the Giants can't work out a deal with Lincecum before he hits the open market, they can offer him the one-year qualifying offer. If he were to accept, he would remain in San Francisco for another year at the cost of around $14 million.
If he were to decline, the Giants could still work to re-sign him. If Lincecum bolted, the Giants would get a compensation draft pick after the first round, and the signing team would forfeit their first-round pick unless they finished in the bottom 10 in the overall standings.
The Giants have clearly signaled their desire to bring Lincecum back. However, Lincecum indicated that he wasn't in any hurry to decide on his future.
The Giants are in desperate need of starting pitching help. They finished with the third-worst rotation ERA in the National League last season. They appear to have already made the determination that Lincecum is part of the solution. Thus, the ball will ultimately be in Lincecum's court to decide whether or not he wants to remain in San Francisco.
Lincecum has gone just 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA over the past two seasons. However, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)—an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home run rates—is much more respectable at 3.95.
His ERA improved from 5.18 in 2012 to 4.37 in 2013, so he appears to be on the right track to reestablishing himself as at least a mid-rotation starter. The odds of him becoming the dominant ace he was from 2008-11 when he went 62-36 with a 2.81 ERA and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09 seem remote at this point.
The Giants rotation would be better in 2014 with Lincecum, particularly if he can get his ERA more in line with his FIP. As for Gaudin, he was a revelation for the Giants after Vogelsong went down with an injury and minor league replacement Michael Kickham showed he wasn't ready for the big leagues.
At the team's state-of-the-franchise address, Sabean said, "Chad's pretty banged up right now, so we have to assess where he's going to be this offseason and what that means going into the market."
Lopez, the club's top left-handed specialist, just completed a two-year, $8.5 million deal. The Giants and Lopez should be able to come to a similar agreement this offseason after he posted a 1.83 ERA and held lefties to a .156 batting average in 2013.
If the Giants are able to bring back Lincecum, Lopez, Gaudin and Vogelsong, they'll still have plenty more work to do this winter. They have to find a way to make up 16 games on the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in one offseason.
By quickly re-signing Pence and working to bring back Lincecum, the Giants are clearly trying to go into free agency with a limited number of holes on the roster. If they can get Lincecum back in the fold, they'll still need at least one more starting pitcher. They also have a clear need in left field after receiving just five home runs from the position last year.
Before the Giants explore the market, they'll have to evaluate their own free agents. With Lincecum, they've expressed a clear desire to keep him, and they hold the leverage of the one-year qualifying offer.
With Vogelsong, they hold all the cards via the club option. Gaudin's injury situation has clouded his market value. The Giants re-signed Lopez two years ago, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to bring him back again.
The heavy lifting will come after the decisions are made on those free agents.
For the first time since 2008, the Giants are coming off of a losing season. After winning two championships in three years from 2010-12, another losing season won't be acceptable in San Francisco.