The following sentence was buried at the bottom of Nick Cafardo’s Sunday notes column in the Boston Globe:
Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants — He will be available in trade, and it will be interesting to see who bites on the two-time Cy Young winner.
Next season will be the last under Lincecum’s current contract with the Giants. Last winter, he signed a 2-year/$40.5 million deal with the team, taking him through the end of his arbitration-eligibility.
Cafardo’s column had no quote from a Giants’ official, off or on the record. No source. Just a declaration that Lincecum “will be available in trade.” No matter, Cafardo’s comment was picked up by all the trade rumor blogs and then the Twitterverse. All on the eve of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, which had Giants fans in a tizzy about the truth and timing of Cafardo’s comments.
Later in the day, San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer John Shea asked Giants GM Brian Sabean about Lincecum’s future with the team:
Timmy’s going to be a Giant,” said Sabean, reminding that his contract has one year remaining.
On whether he sees Lincecum improving in next year’s rotation. Sabean said, “I think so. He set the bar so high. We set the bar so high with him. He’s got to learn what it’s like to be knocked down. He hasn’t experienced anything like this. College, minor leagues, major leagues. It’ll be interesting how he turns this around. He knows what he has to do.”
Is it a situation similar to 2010 when Lincecum turned around his game from August to September?
“No, this is more of a function of willing to accept the delivery he’s going to use to be a successful pitcher. He’s going to have to pitch more to contact. No matter what his strikeout ratio is, he’s not going to miss as many at-bats.”
So it’s more about mechanics than bulking up?
“A lot of it is the delivery. The better the delivery, the better the arm action, the better the ability to make quality pitches with pitch to pitch control.”
Cafardo didn’t say when Lincecum “would be available in trade” — whether this winter or during the 2013 season. And while Sabean appeared to rule out a trade this upcoming offseason, he certainly left the door open to a midseason trade in 2013. Although he wasn’t asked directly, Sabean said nothing about the Giants’ plan to try and sign Lincecum beyond 2013.
Sabean did, however, have pretty interesting things to say about Lincecum’s need to re-tool his mechanics and his approach before next season. His comments suggest that the Giants understand Lincecum’s trade value is at a low point now, with so many uncertainties about what kind of pitcher Lincecum will be next season and thereafter. They also suggest that the Giants will not negotiate with Lincecum on a long-term deal this winter, like the team did with Matt Cain last winter as Cain approached the end of his contract.
But Sabean’s comments aside, should the Giants look to trade Lincecum this winter? San Francico’s payroll for 2013 already tops $80 million based on commitments to Lincecum, Cain, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval, and Javier Lopez. Buster Posey will be in his first year of arbitration-eligibility and while the Giants are hoping to sign Posey to a long-term deal, nothing is certain. Brian Wilson will be back and in his last year of arbitration-eligibility; his 2012 salary was $8.5 million. Hunter Pence is also in his last year of eligibility; his 2012 salary was $10.4 million. Those players likely put the payroll near $110 million. Guaranteed minimums for Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and George Kontos push it higher.
And there are the holes to fill. Angel Pagan is a free agent. So is Melky Cabrera. That’s two thirds of the outfield. Gary Brown, the Giants’ highly-touted prospect, doesn’t look ready to take over in center field to start 2013. Gregor Blanco could be back at less than $1 million but isn’t an every-day left fielder. The bullpen will need new pieces, as well.
The reason to try to trade Lincecum this winter, then, would be to free up payroll for free-agent signings and contracts for arbitration-eligible players. The Giants would also be betting that Lincecum doesn’t turn his mechanics around and is therefore no more valuable in 2013 than he was in 2012. If a team were willing to take on all or most of the twenty-plus million owed to Lincecum in 2013, perhaps a deal is done for a top-tier prospect who is still a few years from the majors.
More likely, the Giants hold on to Lincecum to start 2013, with the hope and expectation that he will re-make himself with new mechanics and become an effective starter again, if not at the same level of greatness he showed from his rookie year through 2011. If Lincecum does turn it around next season, the Giants then have to decide whether to try and sign Lincecum to a new deal, trade him, or let him leave in free agency. Much will depend on whether the Giants are postseason contenders at near the trade deadline, whether a market develops for Lincecum that would net the Giants a premium prospect in return, and whether Lincecum is inclined to test the free-agent market or re-sign in San Francisco. If the Giants are contenders, and Lincecum is pitching more like the old Timmy, a trade hurts the team in the short term, even if it nets a top prospect for the future.
In some ways, then, trading Lincecum after this season makes the most sense, if the Giants can free up close to $20 million in payroll. It would allow the team to replace Lincecum either from within or by free agency, and to go into 2013 without the Lincecum uncertainties clouding the season. Of course, for those same reasons, there might not be a huge demand for his services this winter, and the Giants may end up keeping him whether they want to or not.