At this time last year, the baseball industry was raving about the San Francisco rotation. After going more than a half-century between titles, the Giants had the pitching to win multiple championships.
But young starters are rarely as perfect as they seem. They get older. They get more expensive. Ultimately, difficult decisions must be made. That’s precisely where the Giants stand with Tim Lincecum, one year and three days after their shared triumph in Texas.
Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Ryan Vogelsong are on pace to become free agents after the 2012 season; Lincecum is up the year after that. Meanwhile, an offense that scored the fewest runs in the National League is in need of major upgrades. Hoping that Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez return at 100 percent doesn’t constitute an offseason plan.
So if the Giants wish to maximize their odds of returning to the World Series, they have two choices.
1. Spend big for Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes or at the very least Carlos Beltran.
2. Trade one of those prized starters for impact bats, because the day is fast approaching when the Giants won’t be able to afford them all.
And if the Giants blanch at the going rates in free agency, the most practical move might be to trade Mr. Two-Time Cy Young Award Winner himself.
Sanchez has minimal value, coming off an erratic, injury-plagued season in which he barely threw 100 innings and set a new career high with nearly six walks per nine innings.
Vogelsong is a strong candidate to sign an extension with the Giants this winter. He earned less than $500,000 this year. Because of his nomadic career — he spent three seasons in Japan — Vogelsong likely would be compelled by the security of a long-term contract.
Cain is highly regarded because of his reliability. He has led the staff in innings during each of the past two seasons and is coming off his best year in the majors, judging by ERA (2.88) and WHIP (1.08). Cain previously signed a three-year contract with the team and will earn $15 million in 2012 — a sturdy platform from which to begin discussions about a Jered Weaver-style extension.
Lincecum (13-14, 2.74, 220 Ks) is coming off a two-year, $23 million deal that was signed amid expectations he would set a new record in salary arbitration. He’s probably going to earn $17 million next year and upwards of $20 million in ’13, assuming his performance remains constant. At those numbers, Lincecum will achieve great wealth before reaching free agency. So he has little incentive to sign a long-term extension. He can take his chances on the market while perhaps setting a record or two in the process.
In fact, Lincecum told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle that he’s disinclined to sign an extension beyond 2013. “It’s just easier for me mentally not to have to put that kind of pressure on yourself,” Lincecum said in September. “Not that you don’t want to succeed, but when you’re signed to a long-term deal, it’s like saying, ‘I’m going to live up to every expectation.’ That’s why I like going year to year, so I can improve on it and not sit on what I’ve done.”
The lack of urgency suggests Lincecum will indeed hit the open market after the ’13 season, barring a quick change of heart. For elite starting pitchers, the second-to-last offseason prior to free agency is a crucial one. If Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez hadn’t re-upped with their teams after the ’09 season, they would be free agents right now. (C.J. Wilson, have you thanked them yet?)
There is no evidence that Lincecum is available on the trade market. And he shouldn’t be — yet. General manager Brian Sabean must see where the market goes for Fielder, Reyes, et al. If he can afford them, there’s no reason to shop Lincecum. But if Sabean can’t squeeze either into a payroll of roughly $120 million, he could move Lincecum for multiple players and the flexibility that would allow him to afford Fielder or Reyes.
In that sense, the trade would be Lincecum for prospects and Fielder — which should sound a little better to Giants fans.
And for those who doubt whether a championship-caliber team would trade an ace pitcher … I suggest you ask Cliff Lee.
Some updates from around the majors, as free agency got underway in earnest Thursday:
* Speaking of needy lineups in the Bay Area … the A’s have such a desperate need for offense — and their budget is so tight — that they might need to consider moving Trevor Cahill (12-14, 4.16) or Gio Gonzalez (16-12, 3.12) for multiple bats. Thanks to the presence of Brandon McCarthy, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman, Oakland has enough rotation depth to trade a top starter.
* At this time last year, the Twins were coming off their sixth division title in nine seasons. Now they are in the midst of a full-fledged retooling. Only two returning hitters had more than 30 RBI this year: Danny Valencia (72) and Trevor Plouffe (31). (Texas had 10 such players this season.) The Minnesota rotation was one of the AL’s worst, and now the bullpen must be rebuilt after Joe Nathan and Matt Capps filed for free agency.
* Since I know it’s hard to let go of your favorite veterans, I’m pleased to report that the agents for Mike Cameron, Tim Wakefield, Edgar Renteria and Craig Counsell told me Thursday that their clients still intend to play in 2012.
* A pair of former Dodgers right-handers, starter Jon Garland (shoulder) and reliever Jonathan Broxton (elbow), are said to be recovering on schedule following season-ending surgeries. Both are free agents. Agent Craig Landis said Garland plans to continue as a starter and may throw for teams this offseason, depending on demand. Garland last pitched June 1.
* As of Thursday afternoon, Bobby Valentine wasn’t scheduled to interview with the Red Sox, Cubs or Cardinals.
* Some teams view free-agent infielder Jamey Carroll (.290 BA, .359 OBP) as an everyday second baseman.
* Daniel Cabrera, the perpetual big-arm, shaky-performance guy with the Baltimore Orioles, is a free agent and intends to pitch in the Dominican Winter League to show clubs that he’s healthy after undergoing Tommy John surgery one year ago. "The goal has always been to be a starter," agent Mike Powers said. "Depending on how he reacts to the surgery, it remains his preference to be a starter." Cabrera might be worth considering; he’s just 30 years old.
* Finally, a personal favorite: Italian baseball journalist Mario Salvini wrote this week at La Gazzetta dello Sport that Rangers manager Ron Washington was once courted by AC Milan — the baseball version — near the end of his playing career.
Salvini reported that AC Milan, owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, directed by the well-known soccer manager Fabio Capello, wanted to sign Wash as an infielder for the 1990 season. He declined, staying in the US for what proved to be the final year of his playing career. Washington spent that season with the Class AA affiliate of the Rangers — the same franchise that he’s led to consecutive pennants.
So, it all worked out well for Washington … but aspiring Italian ballplayers certainly missed the chance to absorb Washington’s energy and enthusiasm for the sport, which was so evident in the Texas dugout throughout the postseason.
If Wash had played for Milan, we’d be seeing the Italian translation of "That’s the way baseball go" on T-shirts throughout Lombardy.