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Market Closed: Tim Lincecum [UPDATE]


Sep 26, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fourth inning at AT

UPDATE: The Giants and Lincecum agreed to a two year deal to avoid free agency on Tuesday, about 18 hours after this was posted. So imagine an alternate universe in which they *didn’t* do that and enjoy below.

It’s fun to play revisionist sometimes.

In 2006, the Royals had the number one overall pick and ultimately selected Luke Hochevar with it. Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that first overall honor. To make matters worse, Evan Longoria was in that draft. Clayton Kershaw was in that draft. Max Scherzer was in that draft.

Tim Lincecum was in that draft.

And the fun thing to do (I say fun because again, revisionist history can be fun) is tear up the Royals for taking Hochevar when Lincecum was right there waiting to be a two-time Cy Young Award winner. What most forget is that Andrew Miller was a better bet for the #1 pick and the only other option the Royals really considered at the time.

Additionally, there were some who saw Hochevar as the better prospect anyway.

From Jason Churchill on Prospect Insider in June 2006, in comparing Hochevar and Lincecum:

"Hochevar is much more likely to become a 200-inning No. 2/3 starter than Lincecum is, due to the aforementioned risk factors."

So he missed on that call, but that’s what draft scouting can do. Not every player makes it. Not all players reach their ceiling. There’s room out there for the middle reliever, and a player can carve out a fine living in that spot.

But the Royals may have the opportunity to atone for that draft miss. Lincecum is due to become a free agent this winter and, despite the Giants attempts to re-sign him, he’s looking to test the market. They’ve apparently offered him a two year deal and he’s reportedly turned it down.

The Royals will likely be looking to add to their starting rotation. Ervin Santana will be a free agent, and, after a strong 2013, could price himself out of the Royals range. Three years at $45 million is what seems to be the consensus peak contract offer for Santana, and it’s not unlikely to see a fourth year becoming necessary for a team to win him over. He’s good and can be a strong #2 starter, but he’s also shown some inconsistency, so perhaps another route will become necessary.

Enter Lincecum.

His story has seen him destroy the Pac-10 in college with Washington, despite being the size of so many high school sophomores. At just 5’11” and 170 lbs, the question on Lincecum in the draft was how he would hold up as a starter and if he could be effective over 200 innings a year. Armed with a unique delivery and training regimen, he was dubbed a freak and many saw him as so unconventional as to be untouchable.

Instead, it ended up being his ticket to fame and fortune. “Controlled Fury” is how one writer described his motion.

Lincecum debuted in 2007 and promptly won the Cy Young Award in his first full season in the big leagues. Then he won it again. He led the league in strikeouts from 2008 to 2010. And he cashed in.

After his Cy Young seasons, he faded a bit, but was still an All-Star caliber pitcher and earned Cy Young votes. Through 2011, Lincecum had thrown 1028 innings and struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings. His ERA in that stretch was 2.98. His worst FIP as a full time major leaguer through 2011 was 3.17 in 2011. His worst full time xFIP was 3.36 that same year. His worst season over that period resulted in peripherals that would still have been top notch.

But nothing gold can stay.

In 2012, Lincecum got hit hard. His fastball velocity went from 92.2 in 2011 to 90.4 mph in 2012. After holding off from throwing the slider, going so far as to abandon it in spring of 2012, it later became one of his more frequent pitches. As his career has progressed, his fastball usage has declined.

And it wasn’t just that his fastball declined, even early in 2012, all of his pitches – except his changeup – had declined according to at least one scout. His results from that season suggest that, yes, his stuff had fallen off. He gave up more line drives, and his walkrate was rising, while his strikeout rate was falling. He finished 2012 with a 5.18 ERA in 186 innings.

After that, 2013’s 4.37 ERA looks awfully nice.

So why be interested in a guy, by appearances, could be hitting the wall after years of 200 inning seasons?

For one, he’s done it before. Even in 2013, in a down year, Lincecum managed to add a no-hitter to his resume. Also, that Lincecum is interested in a contract that could rebuild his value makes him particularly appealing to a smaller market team who might be willing to take a two year risk if it means they don’t have to add five years of double digit salary to their ledgers. It may be a greater cost up front, but big contracts have a way of turning into anchors after a couple years, especially with pitchers.

Kansas City is an excellent place to rebuild value, as well. Kauffman Stadium is notoriously troublesome for hitting home runs, and I think any pitcher is going to enjoy that, plus the Royals were ridiculously good on defense, both according to FanGraphs’ UZR measurements and by judging highlight plays.

Plus, the Royals seem to have the pitcher whisperer on staff.

Just ask Jeremy Guthrie about how Dave Eiland has helped him. Or Bruce Chen. Or how Ervin Santana went from giving up the most homers in the league in 2012 to being one of the best in the league.

You can’t just assume that Lincecum can turn it around, but KC would be a nice landing spot for him to do so. The upside is that you get a Cy Young caliber starter to go alongside James Shields. The downside is you pay a lot for a guy who’s already peaked and isn’t coming back.

Because in the end, it will be a matter of cost. The Royals aren’t blessed with the Dodgers’ TV contract or the Yankees’ marketplace. The Giants, in attempting to retain Lincecum, are all but certain to offer him a qualifying offer (which will come in at $14.1 million) when the time comes. If he turns that down, it probably puts his price tag at $15 million, likely for two seasons. Signing Lincecum to a 2 year/$30 million deal probably costs the opportunity to sign Santana again if any offensive upgrades are going to happen as well. Plus, the Royals would give up a draft pick for signing a player who’d rejected a qualifying offer. Which also means signing another player who’d declined a qualifying offer would result in the loss of the Royals next draft pick.

Lincecum’s 2013 peripherals were a mixed bag. His strikeout rate was the lowest of his big league career (a still good 23%, but he didn’t strike out a batter per inning for the first time as a big leaguer), but his walkrate did improve, and his FIP (3.74) and xFIP (3.56) suggest that he could have been better. Steamer projections for 2014 have him throwing 182 innings next year with a 3.72 ERA.

And he would still have the upside. If he regains some zip on his fastball and gets a bit more luck, he could easily regain his All-Star form. He could also get hurt, continue to be average, or collapse entirely. It’s a risk.

I’ve thrown a lot of information out there, and there’s a lot to consider, so here’s my suggestion. Since the Royals are probably going to go after an outfielder in free agency, knowing that they’ll likely lose a draft pick for signing someone means Santana, as a player they could be retaining, adds some value even if everything is equal between he and Lincecum, simply by limiting their loss of draft picks. Barring that, though, Lincecum is the biggest name on the market (and let’s face it, he is even after Santana’s big year).

Dayton Moore doesn’t seem the gambling type, but he’s taken on reclamation projects before and has generally had success. My hunch is that Lincecum rebounds. Maybe Dayton needs more than that, but I say give it a shot.