Tim Lincecum's no-hitter on Saturday is another twist for a player who, at least for Giants fans, has become one of the most frustrating, but beloved, in baseball. Over the last season and a half, Lincecum has been somewhere between dreadful in 2012, to just bad most of this year. Nonetheless, over the course of this season and a half, Lincecum has had games, and moments, where he has been his old dominant self. Saturday's game was only the most dramatic example of that.
Lincecum has accomplished and gone through so much that it is hard to believe he is only 29, except of course that he still looks like he is barely old enough to drink legally. Lincecum has won two Cy Young awards, finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting in two other seasons, pitched two of the biggest games in San Francisco Giants post-season history in 2010, out-dueled Cliff Lee, the acknowledged king of the post-season twice in the 2010 World Series, been on four All Star teams, started one All Star Game, been an integral player on two World Series winning teams, and salvaged a dreadful 2012 season with fantastic long relief during the post-season.
Lincecum's impressive and frustrating performance on the field is buoyed by a personality and style that make him one of the most recognizable pitchers in the game. His long hair, unusual delivery, West Coast style, memorable use of profanities and marijuana make him stand out in a profession that is still in many ways very conservative. Moreover, Lincecum is fortunate to play for a team and in a city where all of that is embraced, even celebrated. Lincecum has been a great pitcher and a not very good one over the course of his career, but he has always been a great fit for San Francisco and the Giants.
This is why, with only a few months to go before he becomes a free agent, Lincecum and the Giants are facing some very tough decisions. It is likely that both the Giants and their one-time superstar pitcher would like to see Lincecum have a strong second half and then sign a big, multi-year contract. However, it is not likely that things will go that smoothly. If Lincecum continues to struggle while showing occasional signs of brilliance, the Giants may offer a contract in the three-years, $20-million range, but not much more than that. Lincecum may get lucky and find another team willing to take a chance on him, but if not he might stay with the Giants because he has always played there, or he might leave because he feels insulted at not receiving a better offer. Either way, the likelihood is that if he continues to struggle through the end of this season, Lincecum's days as a dominant starter will be behind him.
Lincecum will then be faced with the decision of whether he decides to make it all the way back as a dominant starter or reposition himself as a reliever. Obviously the best and most lucrative outcome for Lincecum is to remain a starting pitcher and become a good one again. Even league-average starting pitchers who can remain healthy earn more than all but the best relief pitchers, and for Lincecum, who has always started, there is more status associated with that role.
Switching to the bullpen, while not without its own risks, could lead to a very different career path for Lincecum. It would be unconventional, but may be the best way for Lincecum to maintain his reputation as an elite pitcher and his identity as one of the faces of one of baseball's most popular and successful franchises. If Lincecum told the Giants he was willing to switch to the bullpen, the Giants would be much more willing to resign him for about as much money as he is likely to get from them, or anybody else, as a starter anyway. Becoming a reliever would require Lincecum to recognize that he is not the pitcher he once was, but it also might be the best way to continue to build a resume that could land him in Cooperstown or at least a place among the greatest Giants pitchers since the team moved to San Francisco.
If Lincecum switches to the bullpen and becomes a decent closer, something that should not be as difficult as becoming a top level starter again, he could rack up 200-300 saves. A pitcher with 200 saves and Lincecum's accomplishments as a starting pitcher would have a very different place in baseball history than a pitcher who was essentially in steady decline after two Cy Young Awards. Becoming a reliever with the Giants would also strengthen Lincecum's already powerful and lucrative ties to the Bay Area. This is particularly important for a pitcher like Lincecum who has been fortunate enough to play for an organization that seems to appreciate his unique style and personality.
It is probable that Lincecum will not be offered a big long-term contract to remain a starter from any team, unless he has an extraordinary second half. Given that, the two-time Cy Young pitcher must choose between several options, but taking a longer term view and thinking creatively might be the best chance for the one-time ace to have the best shot at a strong second half of his career.