Tim Lincecum's Comeback Could Be Well-Timed Coup for MLB Contender

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2016

San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum against the Milwaukee Brewers during a baseball game in San Francisco, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Like Sasquatch, Jimmy Hoffa or Luke Skywalker in that new Star Wars movie, Tim Lincecum is an enigma. A myth. A phantom shrouded in mystery.

We know he's recovering from offseason hip surgery. We know he's a free agent. And we know he's been throwing regularly, far from the prying eyes of scouts and media types.

We've also been hearing for months that the two-time National League Cy Young winner will hold a showcase for prospective suitors. Here's the most recent update, courtesy of MLB Network's Jon Heyman:

We've seen that "expected soon" line before, so don't hold your breath. At some point, though, The Freak will surface. He'll hurl baseballs. And if he looks like even a fraction of his former self, he could provide a significant early-season boost for a pitching-hungry MLB contender.

Before we dive into that, let's recount some recent history.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Lincecum was the most feared pitcher in the game, a tightly wound coil of flowing locks and filthy stuff 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 slender build, there was always a question of how long Lincecum would last. The answer came beginning in 2012, as his dominance crumbled and his ERA ballooned.

Lincecum, who underwent offseason hip surgery, hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2011.
Lincecum, who underwent offseason hip surgery, hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2011.Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

Lincecum occasionally showed flashes of his bygone glory, 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. The last time he posted an ERA under 4.00 was 2011. Then came this winter's hip surgery, which is both a red flag and a source of hope.

Here's what Lincecum's surgeon, Dr. Marc Philippon, said after performing the procedure, per Heyman:

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.

That part about regaining velocity is the key. In 2011, Lincecum's average fastball was 92.2 mph, per FanGraphs. By 2015, that number had slipped to 87.5 mph.

Speed isn't everything. But combine diminished zip with frequently wonky command and suddenly Lincecum's secondary pitches—including his once-devastating changeup—became far less effective.

Lincecum won't magically revert back to the pitcher who won all of that hardware. That's too far for even the rosiest optimist. But the idea he could be an above-average No. 4 or No. 5 starter at age 31? That feels plausible.

If and when the long-promised showcase happens, expect nearly every team to at least take a peek.

In January, Heyman (who has become the unofficial Lincecum beat reporter) highlighted the Padres and Miami Marlins as two potential landing spots.

Really, though, Lincecum makes the most sense for a legit contender (sorry, Pads and Fish fans). Even if he melts eyeballs in his showcase, he'll undoubtedly sign a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the goal of building his value for a bigger payday next winter.

Lincecum's surgeon suggested the slender right-hander could regain zip on his fastball.
Lincecum's surgeon suggested the slender right-hander could regain zip on his fastball.John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Baltimore Orioles were reportedly interested in Lincecum in February, and their starting rotation remains an unsettled mess, particularly with free-agent addition Yovani Gallardo on the disabled list.

However, as yours truly opined, Lincecum would be wise to stay far away from the hitter-friendly American League Eastand possibly the unfamiliar, designated-hitter-loaded Junior Circuit in general.

That's what makes the Padres and Petco Park so attractive. There's another NL West squad with questions at the back end of its rotation, however, and it happens to be the only franchise Lincecum has ever known.

Yes, the Giants' starting five is set, with ace Madison Bumgarner joined by pricey offseason pickups Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and veteran right-handers Matt Cain and Jake Peavy.

Cain and Peavy, however, have wobbled, yielding a combined 31 runs in 42 innings. And sophomore sinkerballer Chris Heston, the ostensible No. 6 man, was recently optioned to Triple-A.

If Lincecum wants a guaranteed starting role, San Francisco may not be the place. But, based on Heyman's note about him using the Giants' Arizona facilities in his recovery, he's clearly still on good terms with his ex-employer.

Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles threw a wet blanket on the notion of a Lincecum/Giants reunion, noting that, "Lincecum knows that he can make more money next offseason as a starter, and he also probably prefers the role. It's familiar. So for him to circle all the way back to the Giants, something has to change."

It's a fair point. Then again, Timmy doing Timmy things in the orange and black would be a perfect dose of even-year nonsense.

For any other club with playoff aspirations, landing something approaching vintage Lincecum on an inexpensive, one-year pact would be a well-timed coup.

For now, Lincecum's destination remains as mysterious as, well, everything else about him.

Eventually, the spring's biggest enigma will emerge from the shadows. The question is: Unlike Sasquatch, Luke Skywalker and the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa, will he be for real?

All statistics current as of April 26 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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