Baseball, like all sports, is a cruel mistress. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she frowns. But eventually, the game grinds everyone—including the greats—into oblivion.
Baseball also offers shots at redemption, however; opportunities for an unexpected second act. In fact, successful comebacks happen nearly every year, though they're hard to predict and even harder to chart.
That's our purpose here. To examine the cases of Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee—two fallen MLB aces trying to claw their way back to relevance—and determine which one offers the better risk/reward for a club in need.
Let's begin with Lincecum. The slender right-hander hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2011 and underwent season-ending hip surgery in September.
Once upon a time, however, The Freak was the most feared pitcher in the game, a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner who eclipsed 200 strikeouts and 200 innings in every season between 2008 and 2011 for the San Francisco Giants.
With his whiplash-inducing mechanics and slim build, there was always a question of how long Lincecum would last. And the answer came beginning in 2012, as his velocity cratered and his ERA ballooned.
Lincecum occasionally showed flashes of his old self, twirling no-hitters against the San Diego Padres in 2013 and 2014 and making memorable appearances out of the bullpen during the Giants' 2012 World Series run.
But his decline was as steady as it was steep. He's still just 31 years old, yet it's worth wondering if his days as an effective big league pitcher are over.
The first clue will come soon. Lincecum is set to hold a showcase for prospective suitors sometime in January, per Rael Enteen of KNBR.com.
Lincecum's father, Chris, who helped develop his son's unorthodox delivery and has been his longtime coach and confidant, said Tim met with his surgeon, Dr. Marc Philippon, and was told his hip looks "perfect," per Enteen.
Whether that will translate to zip on his fastball and increased control, two things that abandoned Lincecum during his slide to mediocrity, remains to be seen.
After performing the operation, Dr. Philippon sounded an optimistic note, per MLB Network's Jon Heyman, then writing for CBS Sports:
I think it's going to help tremendously to regain the velocity on his pitches and the (control) of them. If you cannot control the hips – that's what generates the power – it's difficult to get full motion.
Every pitcher is different. In his style of pitching he uses the hips a lot. We're going to make sure he returns perfectly balanced.
If you're a Freak fanatic who fondly recalls the days when the shaggy ace used to carve up opposing hitters with high-90s heat and his darting changeup, that has to bring at least a tentative smile to your face.
OK, let's switch gears to Lee for a moment. While you have to go back a few years to locate vintage Lincecum, Lee was an All-Star and top-10 NL Cy Young vote-getter as recently as 2013, when he posted a 2.87 ERA with 222 strikeouts in 222.2 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies.
But the veteran southpaw was limited by elbow issues in 2014 and missed the entire 2015 season. Now, he's gunning for a return and has drawn "significant interest from a multitude of teams," according to his agent, Darek Braunecker, per ESPN.com's Andrew Marchand.
Lee was the second-most valuable pitcher by FanGraphs WAR between 2009 and 2013, behind only Justin Verlander, so it's easy to see why suitors would come sniffing around. And it's possible a year off resolved his arm issues.
As with Lincecum, we won't know for certain until we see Lee in action.
Based on what we know now, though, let's return to the original question: Which pitcher lands in a better place on the risk/reward spectrum? If you were going to take a flier on one, who would it be?
The argument for Lee centers mainly on his more recent success. Just a couple of seasons ago, he was one of the top left-handers in baseball. He also opted against surgery, which doesn't erase concerns about his health but does simplify the equation. Either a year-plus of rest made a significant difference or it didn't.
With Lincecum, as usual, there are more moving parts. His doctor's rosy prognosis aside, this hip surgery is something of an enigma. It's fun to fantasize about Big-Time Timmy Jim cranking back the clock and emerging as we all remember him. That seems a touch too fairy-tale to be real, though.
Then again, the idea of Lee, who turns 38 in August, rebounding from major elbow and forearm problems and producing over a full 162-game grind is semi-far-fetched in its own right.
All things considered, we'll give a slight edge to Lincecum based almost solely on age. He's nearly seven years Lee's junior and has about 500 fewer MLB innings on his arm. That's not to say old guys can't succeed, but when you're digging in against Father Time, youth offers an edge.
Assuming there are no significant setbacks, it's probable both players will land spring training invites at least, and possibly guaranteed contracts featuring a low base value larded with incentives. In November, Heyman predicted $5 million guaranteed for Lincecum.
Braunecker said Lee is holding out for the "perfect fit," per MLB Network Radio. Presumably that means a team built to win now and maybe near his home in Arkansas. That could foretell a return to the Lone Star State, either with his old club, the Texas Rangers, or the Houston Astros. If he's willing to go north, the New York Yankees also appear to be a logical landing spot.
As for Lincecum, the sentimental bet is on San Francisco, the only franchise he's ever known. The Giants added Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto to a rotation that looks full, but general manager Bobby Evans said San Francisco "will be watching" Lincecum's showcase, per Enteen. It's possible Lincecum's future is as a bullpen arm anyway, so there could be a fit.
As a baseball fan, you should root for both of these comebacks to succeed, because comebacks are cool. The odds are stacked against it, as they always are. Still, sometimes baseball smiles.
Now, Lincecum and Lee are hoping that smile is aimed in their direction.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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