Giants general manager Brian Sabean knows he's allowed to sign free agents from other teams, right?
Sabean just re-signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year contract worth a reported $35 million, complete with a no-trade clause, a contract that, given Lincecum's performance for San Francisco over the last two years, doesn't make a lick of sense.
The contract is a slight pay-cut for Lincecum, who was due to hit free agency coming off a two-year, $40.5 million deal that covered his final two arbitration-eligible seasons. He signed that deal coming off a 2010 season in which he posted a 2.74 ERA (127 ERA+) over 217 innings and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting. Over the last two seasons, Lincecum has posted a 4.76 ERA, which translates to a 72 ERA+ that is tied for the worst among major-league pitchers with 300 or more innings over those two seasons. The men he is tied with are Edinson Volquez, who was released by the Padres in August, and, in what should have been a giant red flag for Sabean, Barry Zito.
Lincecum won consecutive Cy Young awards for the Giants in 2008 and '09. In 2010, he pitched them to their first World Series victory since moving to San Francisco, and amid his struggles the last two seasons was a key long reliever in the team's 2012 championship run. This past July, he threw a rousing 148-pitch no-hitter against the Padres. It's not a mystery why Sabean and Giants fans in general are fond of Lincecum, but $35 million is a lot of money to spend on a player whose value appears to be purely sentimental at this point.
Lincecum hasn't simply pitched in bad luck over the last two seasons. Per Brooks Baseball, his average fastball dropped from 93.1 mph in 2011 to 90.9 this past season, his home-run and walk rates have increased since his Cy Young seasons and his strikeout rate, though still close to one per inning, hit a career low in 2013. Each of those changes on its own seems minor, but together virtually every aspect of his performance on the mound is headed in the wrong direction as he approaches his 30th birthday next June. And it's not as though he appeared to turn a corner toward the end of the 2013 season. Lincecum posted a 4.32 ERA in September while striking out just seven men per nine innings and had a 4.54 mark in the 13 starts following his no-hitter in July.
This is not a make-good contract -- $35 million is too rich for that -- and the Giants don't need two more years to see what Lincecum has left given that he had plenty of opportunities to show them in 66 starts over the last two seasons. Lincecum said in June that he'd be open to a move to the bullpen, but the highest salary in history for a closer is the $15 million Mariano Rivera earned every year since 2008 on contracts no longer than three years, and the Giants own Sergio Romo for another year.
If the Giants were really determined to keep Lincecum, they likely could have simply made him a qualifying offer, which this offseason means a $14.1 million, one-year contract. Then, let the price of that deal and the added cost of a lost draft pick by whatever team would sign him dry up the limited market there was for his services to begin with.
Instead, San Francisco, a team that is not prone to reckless spending (except in the cases of Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand) is paying a player who has been the worst starting pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons $17.5 million a year over the next two. It's doubtful that any other team would have given Lincecum nearly this much money. This contract is not a potential albatross because of its brevity, but there is almost no chance that the Giants get their money's worth from it. Even as a sentimental move, it's a failure. It's difficult to imagine anyone wanting to continue to watch an iconic player scuffle along as an overpaid shadow of his former self. Apparently, Brian Sabean does.