Tim Lincecum hasn't pitched competitively since last June and hasn't turned in a strong season since 2011, but even so, the eyes of the baseball world are on the two-time National League Cy Young winner. The 31-year-old righthander, currently a free agent coming off of hip surgery, will have a showcase this Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., throwing in front of scouts from nearly two dozen teams.
Via Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown, Lincecum has been throwing simulated games of 90 to 100 pitches every fifth day under the direction of his father, Chris, who long ago designed his son's unique delivery to help him generate maximum velocity despite being so undersized (5'11", 170 pounds) relative to most pitchers. His recent velocity is said to have topped 90 mph, which while above last year's average (88.7 mph according to Brooks Baseball) is still about 4 mph removed from his salad days; his velocity has been in decline since 2011, with an average of around 91 mph from '12 to '14.
Lincecum hasn't been able to figure out how to be productive for very long without that velocity. From 2008 to '11, when he could push his fastball into the upper 90s when he needed to, “The Freak” was one of the top pitchers in baseball. In those four seasons, he posted a 2.81 ERA and a 2.81 FIP with 10.0 strikeouts per nine, made the NL All-Star team every year and won the Cy Young award in '08 and '09. Yet over the next four seasons, he was pummeled for a 4.68 ERA and a 4.08 FIP with 8.4 strikeouts per nine. At times, he's been able to recapture his glory, pitching out of the bullpen to great effect during the Giants' 2012 championship run and no-hitting the Padres in both '13 (using 148 pitches!) and '14. For the most part, however, he's been a shadow of his former self, slipping below replacement level by a combined 2.7 WAR, with last year's 0.3 his only positive mark.
Indeed, it was a tale of two quarter-seasons for Lincecum in 2015. He didn't allow a run in four of his first eight starts, posting a 2.08 ERA in that span, mainly due to allowing just one homer in 47 2/3 innings; his underlying strikeout and walk rates (4.0 and 6.8) were lousy, and his 4.19 xFIP to that point suggested significant regression ahead. Over his next seven starts, he was pounded for a 7.53 ERA with six homers allowed in just 28 2/3 innings, failing to make it out of the second inning in either of his last two starts—though to be fair, he was removed from the second one due to a bruised forearm suffered on a comebacker, which forced him to the disabled list. Around three weeks later, it was revealed that he had received cortisone shots for a degenerative hip issue. On Sept. 3, he underwent season-ending surgery, and soon afterward, his two-year, $35 million contract expired, making him a free agent.
Via the Bay Area News Group's Andrew Baggarly, the Giants are among the teams interested in signing Lincecum, albeit as a reliever:
“Yeah, that’s fair to say,” said Bochy, who foresees a relief role for Lincecum on the Giants staff. “We know Timmy. The fact is, that’s a role he could fit. I don’t know his level of interest in having a role like that. It doesn’t rule out any other role because of injuries.”
San Francisco rebuilt itsr rotation this past winter, making $220 million worth of contract commitments to Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, who have joined Madison Bumgarner, Jake Peavy and Matt Cain in the team's starting five. To date, Cain, who was limited to 26 starts and a 4.83 ERA in 2014 and '15 combined amid a slew of injuries, has been rocked for a 7.00 ERA. Peavy, who made just 19 starts last year due to a back injury, is sporting a gaudy 9.00 ERA after getting rocked for seven runs (and four homers) in six innings against Cincinnati on Wednesday. Both have high batting averages on balls in play (.414 for Peavy, .357 for Cain) to go with ugly peripherals; together, they've averaged a bare 5.1 innings per start, with just one quality start apiece in 11 total turns. If either are dropped from the rotation, Chris Heston, who tossed a no-hitter against the Mets last year and has turned in a 3.95 ERA (95 ERA+) in 31 starts, is likely the next man in line. He’s being stretched out at Triple A Sacramento after making four appearances totaling five innings for the big club in the first two weeks of the season.
Given their history with Lincecum, the Giants are likely to maintain the inside track with him, and as of February, a return to San Francisco was said to be his preference. On the other hand, so is a return to starting. While he made five postseason appearances in relief in 2012 and one in '14, he has just eight regular-season relief appearances under his belt, seven of them coming two years ago. The small-sample numbers for those 14 appearances are encouraging (29 2/3 innings, 2.73 ERA, 27/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but they're just that—a small sample spread across a seven-season span dating back to 2008. While the showcase will take place at Scottsdale Stadium, the Giants' spring home, they've allowed him to use the facility as a courtesy, and he's also thrown elsewhere in order to fly below the radar.
So who else might be interested? Via MLB Network's Jon Heyman, 23 teams have reached out, a group that includes neither the Yankees nor the Mets. Elsewhere, the Rockies and Twins have been identified via various reports as teams undecided or not interested, and rebuilders such as the Braves, Brewers, Phillies and Reds don’t appear to be in the running, at least according to MLB Trade Rumors’ recent aggregations.
The Orioles and Padres were both connected to Lincecum during the off-season, and both teams have taken hits to their rotation thus far. Baltimore, off to a 15–10 start, has lost Yovani Gallardo to shoulder tendinitis, but while he was replaced by Kevin Gausman (who himself began the season on the disabled list due to shoulder troubles), rookie Mike Wright and veteran Ubaldo Jimenez have both been roughed up thus far, with ERAs above 5.00 and homer rates of at least 1.3 per nine. The team as a whole ranks last in quality start rate at 32% and recently signed Wandy Rodriguez (4.90 ERA in 86 1/3 innings last year with Texas) to a minor league deal. San Diego (11–16) just lost Robbie Erlin to Tommy John surgery, and both Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea have taken their lumps. As a team unlikely to contend, the Padres could give Lincecum a shot in the rotation with the hopes of flipping him to a contender in late July or August.
From among the rest, various reports have linked the Athletics, Angels, Astros, Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers, Tigers and White Sox to Lincecum. The Cubs don't have an opening in their rotation, but they're off to an MLB-best 19–6 start and have had modest success in turning castoffs such as Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard into useful bullpen parts. The White Sox (19–8) just designated John Danks for assignment and will replace him with Erik Johnson, who has made 16 starts for the team over the past three seasons, including six last year. A chance to work with pitching coach Don Cooper, regarded as one of the best in the game, would appear to be a plus for Lincecum as well.
On that note, the Pirates, whose pitching coach Ray Searage has become the game's top turnaround expert, were connected to Lincecum back in March. Thus far, Jon Niese (5.94 ERA) and Jeff Locke (4.73) have scuffled, though one Searage project, Juan Nicaso, has pitched well (3.16 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine). Top prospect Tyler Glasnow struck out 11 at Triple A Indianapolis last week en route to International League Pitcher of the Week honors; he's likely to make his major league debut at some point this season, but there's no timetable.
As I noted earlier this week on SI Now, the Astros are off to a dreadful start (9–18) in part because their rotation has been one of the majors' worst, with the AL's second-worst ERA (5.13), strikeout rate (6.6 per nine) and quality start rate (33%). Reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel (5.11 ERA) isn't the only one who has pitched poorly; Doug Fister, Mike Fiers and Collin McHugh also have unsightly ERAs. Lance McCullers, who made a strong showing in 22 starts last year, is nearing a return from a bout of shoulder soreness, so some help is already on the way.
If Lincecum wants to remain in the Bay Area, the A's would appear to be in need of help, as they just lost Chris Bassitt to a partial UCL tear, with Jesse Hahn replacing him. Among other California teams, the one that stands out as the best potential fit may be the Dodgers—albeit only if he wants to pitch out of the bullpen. Like Don Mattingly before him, manager Dave Roberts has struggled to find anybody he can trust to fill the innings between the starters and closer Kenley Jansen, with top setup men Pedro Baez and Chris Hatcher combining to give up six home runs and issue 13 walks in 21 2/3 innings, and stalwart southpaw J.P. Howell carrying a 9.39 ERA. Among other contenders, the Rangers have the AL's worst bullpen ERA, FIP and home run rate (4.95, 5.43 and 2.0 per nine, respectively), with closer Shawn Tolleson and Tom Wilhelmsen particularly pulverized.
At this stage, one can rationalize most teams taking a flier on Lincecum, but until he throws in front of scouts, there’s little to go on but speculation, and the payoff may not be a particularly high one. Still, the Freak has been one of the game’s most entertaining pitchers over the past decade, and it’s reasonable to hope that the hip surgery has corrected his downward course. If he throws well Friday and finds a fit to his liking, he could well be back in the majors before the season ends.