Earlier this week, San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum agreed to a two year, $35 million contract with the Giants. This new deal makes Lincecum a higher paid pitcher than Jered Weaver, Jake Peavy, James Shields, David Price, Adam Wainwright, and Jon Lester.
What makes this deal strange is that it’s coming after Lincecum’s two worst seasons in the MLB. Just a few years ago, this contract would have been considered a steal. He was the best starting pitcher on the Giants’ 2010 championship team, won the NL Cy Young award both in 2008 and 2009, led the league in strikeouts for three straight seasons from 2008 to 2010, and had been selected to the All-Star team four straight times. Just two years ago, it would not have been crazy to say that Tim Lincecum was one of the five best pitchers in the league, if not the very best.
Over the last two seasons, however, Lincecum has been far from the best pitcher in the league. His production seems to have not just slowed down, but plummeted over the past two years. It got to a point during last year’s World Series run where Lincecum was relegated to the bullpen. For the past two years, Lincecum has not only fallen from the list of best pitchers in the league, but he’s not even the best or second best pitcher on his own team (those spots are reserved for Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong).
For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at Lincecum’s numbers from 2008-2011:
2008: 18 wins, 5 losses, 2.62 ERA, 265 SO, 1.17 WHIP, 227 IP, 7.1 WAR
2009: 15 wins, 7 losses, 2.48 ERA, 261 SO, 1.05 WHIP, 225.1 IP, 7.5 WAR
2010: 16 wins, 10 losses, 3.43 ERA, 231 SO, 1.27 WHIP, 212.1 IP, 4.2 WAR
2011: 13 wins, 14 losses, 2.74 ERA, 220 SO, 1.21 WHIP, 217 IP, 3.6 WAR
Those are the numbers of a two time Cy Young winner. Since then, his numbers have shown clear decline:
2012: 10 wins, 15 losses, 5.18 ERA, 190 SO, 1.47 WHIP, 186 IP, 0.9 WAR
2013: 10 wins, 14 losses, 4.37 ERA, 193 SO, 1.32 WHIP, 197.2 IP, 1.6 WAR
Clearly, Tim Lincecum has shown more than just signs of decline. Would you have believed that those two sets of numbers came from the same player? Also, it’s not as though he’s been playing through tough injuries or has had his number of starts shortened. He has started at least 32 games a season every single season since 2008. Perhaps Lincecum peaked too early and now is starting to show that he’s not really that good. Perhaps his style of pitching is very predictable and the rest of the league finally figured him out. Perhaps he has been playing through some kind of injury over the last couple of years and refuses to be honest about it. Whatever the case, Tim Lincecum has already become a shell of what he once was.
So, back to the question at hand: does he deserve this contract? Yes and no. The great part of this contract is that it only lasts for the next two seasons. The bad part is that the price tag is definitely too high for somebody who hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2011. That said, this type of high-paying, small-commitment contract could produce the following scenarios:
-Tim Lincecum goes back to his old form, pitches over 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, posts an ERA of 3.50 or lower, and returns to the Cy Young conversation, making this contract a great deal for the Giants.
-Tim Lincecum has a mediocre season, pitching around 190 innings with an ERA somewhere between 3.50 and 4.50. He becomes an interesting trade asset since his numbers are somewhat admirable and his contract won’t last very long.
-Lincecum ends up having a horrible season, posting an ERA of 5.00 or higher and wins fewer than 10 games. Though his contract will seem like a huge waste at the time and completely untradeable, it will only last a couple of seasons, so the Giants’ front office can stay put until the deal expires and lean more on Vogelsong and Cain to produce wins.
With all that said, this is not a great contract at all for the Giants, but at the very least it won’t last very long. This type of short-term contract puts the Giants in a somewhat advantageous position: if it works out, the Giants will have one of the best rotations in Major League Baseball. If it doesn’t work out, at least it could have been worse. Overall, Lincecum does not deserve so much money after his startling decline, and if this downward trend continues, he will never see a contract like this again.