The Lincecum Contract
The St. Louis Cardinals, after winning the NLCS, are being celebrated as baseball's best run organization. The Cardinals are a very good organization, but this is hardly a major insight. Teams that make it to the World Series are usually, and rightly viewed as being well run organizations. The exception to this is the New York Yankees who are invariably accused of buying a championship when they win a pennant. Part of the Cardinals story is that if they beat Boston in the World Series, they will have won two World Series in three years, a very difficult feat in the wild card era. They will be the first team to do this since way back in 2012.
The San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the last three World Series, have been forgotten by most of the media, partially because they had such a poor season and partially because it was such a long time ago. In 2012, to refresh our memories, the US was fighting a war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama was president and Miguel Cabrera was viewed as baseball's best hitter. Many of the things that make the Cardinals a great organization were true of those 2010-2012 Giants as well. They developed a core of great young players like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. They invested wisely in players thought to be washed up such as Aubrey Huff, Ryan Vogelsong and Andres Torres and they had a strong and deep bullpen. The Giants also had a manager who was at his best in the post-season. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons the Giants won in 2012 is because Bruce Bochy ran circles around Cardinal manager Mike Matheny in the NLCS that year.
In this context, the Giants decision to keep erstwhile two time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who has had two distinctly sub-par years in a row, from becoming a free agent by signing him to a two year contract valued at $35 million, deserves some scrutiny. At first paying a pitcher who has posted an ERA+ of 72 over the last two years, seems like a very poor decision, particularly as the Giants have needs elsewhere.
There is, however, more to the story than that. First, Lincecum's peripheral numbers particularly in 2013 are much better than his ERA would suggest. His strikeout rate per nine innings was 21st among all pitchers with 150 or more innings pitched, while his WHIP was a pedestrian, but not terrible, 63rd. These numbers, in an off-year suggest Lincecum still has an upside. Lincecum also still shows occasional signs of brilliance, most notably during the 2012 World Series when he pitched out of the bullpen. Second, the Giants are a team that is trying to win now and has some holes in its starting rotation. Letting Lincecum leave would have created a need for a starting pitcher that would not have been easy to fill. Third, Lincecum is in many respects the face of the franchise, not only because of his two Cy Young Awards and tough and often dominant post-season performance, but because he is one of the colorful and popular players around whom the Giants have built a huge Bay Area and substantial national following.
The contract is also a smart one that evinces sophisticated thinking on the part of the Giants and Lincecum. The biggest risk facing the Giants was not overpaying Lincecum for two years, but burdening themselves with a long contract where they would be overpaying him, perhaps by less for several years. This contract limits the Giants' potential cost, but also offers Lincecum the possibility that if he returns to close to his previous form he can hit the free agent market again at age 31, but in a much stronger position.
There are two other considerations that make this contract reasonable as well. Because it is so short, any time Lincecum gets hot for more than a month he will have enormous trade value. A team looking to add a good pitcher with a great post-season track record would be very happy to add a good Tim Lincecum in either 2014 or 2015. The Giants would only trade Lincecum if they they themselves fall out of contention, but as we saw this year, that is a possibility that cannot be ignored.
Additionally, because the contract offers Lincecum no certainty after 2015, it is also possible that if Lincecum continues to struggle he will be considerably more amenable to moving to the bullpen, where has so good in the 2012 World Series. Lincecum could be a very good closer which would provide the Giants with some real roster flexibility. The Giants have handled this situation with Lincecum in a thoughtful and strategic way. Now if only they could win a World Series or two, they might also be recognized as a well run team.