Tim Lincecum Is Signing a Major-League Contract

Pardon our inconsistency. On the one hand, we love having projections. Projections allow us to have an idea of what the future could bring. Projections let us think we know what’s going to happen, and we believe in them because they’ve proven themselves. On the other hand, we love the exceptional. That which doesn’t follow, that which takes us by surprise. We don’t want to actually know the future. We want for the world to mostly make sense, I suppose, but no one wants to close the door on the unpredictable. It’s the surprises that bring life to the living.

Tim Lincecum is back. Tim Lincecum is signing a major-league contract, having been inked by the Rangers. When Lincecum last pitched in the bigs, he might’ve been the very worst pitcher at the level. His ERA soared over 9, and the Angels couldn’t bring themselves to give him ten starts. If you want to get right down to it, the last year Lincecum was an effective major-league pitcher was 2011. That year’s best players by WAR were Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp. It’s been a long time since Lincecum was Lincecum, but hope blows on the embers of a dying fire. Baseball is better with Lincecum in it. There’s renewed reason to think he could surprise.

Lincecum now is well removed from having hip surgery in 2015. When he pitched in the majors in 2016, his fastball averaged about 88. Here’s some feedback on a recent workout.

That’s basically what we have to go on. We’ve got reports of velocity ranges, and we have pictures that seem to show Lincecum with added muscle mass. Scouts in attendance, of course, would’ve gathered more information, and it’s meaningful that Lincecum is getting a major-league deal. Teams saw enough that Lincecum isn’t just getting a spring-training tryout. The Rangers think he can help the club today, although it should be noted Lincecum will almost certainly be used in relief. That’s part of the strategy, as the club looks to find him a suitable role.

Reports had also linked Lincecum to the Dodgers, but from Lincecum’s side, you can see the appeal of Texas. Although no contract terms have been released, and although Lincecum still has to pass a physical, I doubt the money is big, and I doubt the various offers were meaningfully different. Now, the Dodgers today are better than the Rangers, but with the Rangers, Lincecum has a better chance to end up in an important role. Barring a Kenley Jansen injury, Lincecum would never close with LA. With Texas, he’s right in the mix, competing against Jake Diekman, Alex Claudio, and Keone Kela. To say nothing of Lincecum’s chances of maybe returning to the rotation. The Rangers just have a pitching staff with far less certainty, so Lincecum will go as far as his remaining ability can take him. He’s got a month to get ready for opening day.

Because it can’t all be sunshine and lollipops, I feel obligated to include an excerpt from May of 2016. Back then, Lincecum had just pitched in another showcase, before signing with the Angels, and here’s what John Shea wrote.

In the showcase, Lincecum threw a fastball that touched 92 mph, and he was delighted with his curve and comfortable with his slider, cutter and a changeup that generated some oohs and aahs.

Reports were good, in other words. Lincecum landed an opportunity. He was awful. He allowed 41 runs in 38.1 innings. His fastball never showed up, and he shortly found himself back out of work.

It’s not as if that couldn’t happen again. There’s always the chance, and one shouldn’t judge Lincecum’s current arm strength by what he threw in a single showcase. I imagine that has something to do with the likelihood that the Rangers will use Lincecum in relief. But this is a new opportunity, under different circumstances. Lincecum’s going to have a different job. He’s bulked up his body, and the hip surgery is further behind him. Lincecum might truly be ready to be effective again, and it’s not as if this hasn’t happened before.

Years ago, we saw as Bartolo Colon practically came back from the dead. Scott Kazmir rescued his own career, after a premature decline, and for a more recent example, consider 2017 Brandon Morrow’s resurgence. Morrow’s career had deteriorated almost into nothing, owing to problems with his health and command, but now Morrow will serve as the opening-day closer for a team trying to win a World Series. This past winter, Morrow signed a $21-million contract. Imagine knowing that one winter before.

I can also say this for Lincecum. Even as his effectiveness dwindled, even as his velocity disappeared, he never quite stopped missing bats. In every single season of Lincecum’s big-league career, he ran a lower contact rate than average.

Contact rate is far from everything, as you could infer from that 2016 season alone. But Lincecum has never been classically hittable. Even when he couldn’t control his body so precisely anymore, he gave some hitters fits. His pitches didn’t stop moving. If Lincecum can still make the ball dance like he used to, why couldn’t he be good for an inning or two at a time? We’re living in an era in which even Bud Norris looks like a pretty good reliever. Why shouldn’t Tim Lincecum be able to close?

The answer, of course, is that Lincecum isn’t what he was, and in 2016, he sucked. Statistically, that means more than one tryout. This just isn’t a case that’s entirely about the statistics. This is about a healthy and stronger pitcher, looking to work in shorter appearances. And this only adds to the Rangers’ 2018 intrigue. The Rangers are a team somewhere in between gunning for a championship and gunning for a rebuild, and as they look to make one more run for the postseason, they’ll be depending on pitchers following atypical courses.

The organization just doesn’t have many young reinforcements. So the Rangers have set their sights on other kinds of upside. There is, of course, the potential Lincecum upside. They’re going to start Doug Fister, who suddenly started looking like his younger self at 33. Mike Minor is going to start, after a season in relief, which followed two seasons lost to injury. Matt Bush is being looked at as a starter, and he’s a 32-year-old who’s only relieved. Chris Martin could be an important part of the bullpen, having returned from Japan. There’s also Bartolo Colon. There’s also Matt Moore. Even Cole Hamels is looking to shake off a 2017 season that didn’t quite go his way.

Guys like Minor, Fister, and Colon could help a guy like Lincecum, as he tries to reestablish himself. Every story is different, but these stories are different in a similar way. The Rangers aren’t counting on a group of young pitchers to take a step forward. They’re counting on older pitchers to resemble their youth, or to thrive in a different role. In each instance, you can understand the gamble. In this way, Tim Lincecum should be a perfect fit. And don’t be surprised if he ends up closing games he used to be able to start.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Nice. Now sign Joe Blanton to set him up.