Tim Lincecum is destined for a career as a reliever; it’s more a question of “when” than “if”.
With the way things have gone lately for the San Francisco Giants, the 29-year-old is not likely to begin his new life in the bullpen this season unless the Giants turn it around and get into the playoffs. There were rumors that the right-hander could be headed to the ‘pen sooner than later as the Giants were hanging with the league leaders but struggling in the rotation.
After manager Bruce Bochy declared Lincecum available out of the bullpen during a doubleheader in St. Louis in early June, rumors abounded that the Giants would try to acquire a starter and make Lincecum a reliever for the stretch run.
Since the team’s lineup has leveled off and the Giants have fallen into the basement of the NL West, it is now unlikely that the Giants will acquire an impact starter (or any starter, for that matter), and Lincecum will more than likely remain in the rotation for the remainder of 2013.
The more pressing issue for Lincecum is his role in 2014 and beyond. After putting up a 5.00 ERA in his last 50 starts, it’s pretty clear that he no longer has what it takes to be a consistently good starter.
He will be a free agent following this season, and the general belief among those who cover the Giants is that he will not return to San Francisco next year. He is going to want more money than he’s been worth in the past two years, and the Giants seem ready to move on without him.
His options seem to be either to jump around the majors and fill fifth starter spots, or to try his hand at relieving. He certainly made a great first impression out of the bullpen in the 2012 playoffs, putting up an 0.69 ERA in 13 innings out of the bullpen and getting the team out of several very important jams.
Though he doesn’t have the great velocity of a typical reliever, going to the bullpen would allow him to shed his secondary pitches that have hampered him so much over the past few years. He’s particularly struggled with the location and effectiveness of his four-seam fastball and curveball, so pitching only once through the order would allow him to be more deceptive with his trademark changeup.
Ultimately, Lincecum has things he needs to take care of beyond just pitch selection. He has been faced by a great drop-off in his velocity which he’s never been able to compensate for. Beyond that, he has always struggled to maintain his weight and has faced a wealth of external controversy. From his reluctance to listen to coaching either from the Giants or his famed father, to rumors of him exhibiting wild behavior off the field, Lincecum is very rarely free from negative judgement.
Going to the bullpen may help him address his mechanics and hide his lack of velocity or command, but his key to effectiveness more likely relies on him making some significant choices in order to improve himself.
Lincecum being good again is no sure thing, but he can probably earn at least one more high-paying contract just based on his previous two-time-Cy Young Award-winning reputation.
His best bet is probably to sign with a large-market team, as those clubs will feel more comfortable dishing out big bucks to an unproven but talented middle reliever. If he chooses a team with a smaller budget, they will likely want him to further prove his inability as a starter before they decide to move him to the bullpen permanently.
It is up to him to determine his future role and level of effectiveness, but indications are that he will end up in the bullpen before long.