With CC Sabathia re-signing in New York, this winter’s crop of free agent pitchers can be safely described as not overly exciting. C.J. Wilson is the only thing resembling a front-line starter, and after his shaky performance in October, it doesn’t seem like anyone is in a hurry to make him their new ace. And yet, despite the lack of supply, there appears to be strong demand for starting pitching this winter – the Yankees are definitely looking for rotation help, the Red Sox might need two starting pitchers before all is said and done, and the Rangers may need to replace Wilson if he leaves. The big spenders are all looking to substantially upgrade their rotations, and any team who decided to make a front-line pitcher available would be able to negotiate from a point of significant leverage.
Enter the Giants. Their rotation is the clear strength of their team, but an inept offense kept them from repeating as World Series champions last year. While their hurlers are terrific, they have a lot of work to do on the position player side of things, and it’s unclear whether they’ve got enough money to spend this winter to make the necessary upgrades in a single off-season. They owe around $82 million to just eight contracted players for 2012 – Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Aaron Rowand, Aubrey Huff, Brian Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Javier Lopez, and Jeremy Affeldt – and are looking another $30 to $35 million in payouts in arbitration if they bring back most of the guys who they should probably want to return. Without a significant addition, their payroll looks to be about $115 million, giving them about $10 million to spend to get to the expected $125 million mark.
Can the Giants upgrade their roster enough to make themselves contenders again with that little flexibility this winter? Maybe, if Brandon Belt and Buster Posey come back as gangbusters next year and the Giants hit a home run on whichever free agent outfielder they sign, but it’s a path full of risk. So, instead, perhaps they should explore the never-mentioned alternative – trade Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum’s clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball, and subtracting him from their roster would make their rotation a lot worse. However, Linecum’s roughly $20 million expected paycheck in arbitration accounts for around 15% of the Giants budget, and in a market where there is no premium pitching to be found, the team could likely acquire some significant offensive talent in return for their ace. The Yankees and Red Sox would be falling all over themselves to out-bid each other for his services – it’s not hard to see the bidding increasing to the point that multiple young Major League ready hitters would head west in any deal.
For instance, let’s say the Giants decided to ask the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez, and just to make sure they didn’t receive a better offer from Boston, they also would like New York to take some of Aubrey Huff’s remaining $12 million contract off their hands. Not only would the team get a right-handed power bat to take over at first base and a young shortstop with some upside, they’d clear between $25 and $30 million off the books in 2012 salary – enough to re-sign Carlos Beltran, add a real center fielder, and have enough left over to bring in a pitcher to replace Lincecum in the rotation.
And, that’s where the real rub for the Giants comes in. They play in AT&T Park, a place that can make any generic right-hander look fantastic. Whether it’s park effects, the influence of Dave Righetti, or some magical being hanging out in the air in San Francisco, the Giants have a long history of being able to turn mediocre pitchers into home run preventing machines, and in turn, get far better performance out of them than you’d expect. While they can’t expect that they’d be able to just plug in any scrub and get Lincecum-esque performance, any pitcher capable of throwing strikes can do a decent job in San Francisco.
The gap between Lincecum’s future expected performance and what the Giants should be able to get (given their unique circumstances) from another pitcher in that rotation spot is not as dramatic as it might seem on the surface. Even if Lincecum is a +6 win pitcher going forward, the Giants have historically been able to coax +1 to +2 win seasons out of run-of-the-mill arms, and it’s been going on long enough to no longer just be considered a coincidence.
The Giants simply have a competitive advantage in pitching, but they face a similar disadvantage on the offensive side of things. This is a strong seller’s market for starting pitchers, and the Giants have as much depth in their rotation as any team in baseball. Brian Sabean has an opportunity to deal from strength at a time when what he has excess of is in short supply on the market, and in which the two biggest payroll teams in baseball are looking for exactly what he could be able to sell.
By swapping out the final two years of team control they have over their star pitcher for a young hitter who could breathe life into their offense (and enough payroll flexibility to become the major player on the free agent scene this winter), the Giants could end up with a better overall team than they’d get by maintaining the status quo. Moving Lincecum might not be a popular move, but given the short supply of pitchers on the market this winter, his escalating price tag, and their status as a pitcher-generating-factory, it might just be the fastest way for the Giants to make themselves a World Series contender once again.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.