Giants must address Lincecum’s woes

The San Francisco Giants are the new National League West frontrunner. They are in first place. They have the division’s most balanced roster. As Pablo Sandoval fan club president Sandy Alderson could tell you, they boast the most All-Star starters of any NL team. The Giants, at this moment, appear bound for the playoffs.

Yet, I must report that Tim Lincecum allowed a career-high eight runs (in 3 1/3 innings) on Tuesday in a 9-3 loss to the Washington Nationals.

Remember his seven shutout innings last week against the Los Angeles Dodgers? They were a mirage — or, maybe, a sign the Dodgers really can’t hit.

The Giants are talented enough to win the division without Lincecum. If Tuesday’s performance told them anything, it’s that they had better plan on doing it. The non-waiver trade deadline is less than one month away, and it’s time for general manager Brian Sabean to scour the market for a starting pitcher — if he hasn’t done so already.

To be clear, Lincecum has a future with the Giants. At least, he’s contractually obligated to have a future with the Giants. Lincecum is signed for $22.25 million next year, after which he will become a free agent. It’s entirely possible he will report to spring training in 2013, revitalized in body and mind, and carve up the National League again.

But Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy can’t count on that Lincecum returning this year. While advanced metrics (such as BABIP and FIP) suggest Lincecum has been a victim of bad luck, the brutal truth is that he has a 6.08 ERA. That is the second-worst mark among qualifying NL pitchers — almost unheard-of territory for a two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Tuesday, as on other nights this season, Lincecum’s fastball command was insufficient to succeed against big league hitters. He hung way too many breaking balls. The sweltering conditions at Nationals Park — the first-pitch temperature was 94 degrees — didn’t help. Lincecum said the heat “got the better of me.” But he also admitted his pitches were “flatter” than they had been against the Dodgers. That was the real problem.

The Giants can look to Sunday’s first-half finale in Pittsburgh and tell themselves Lincecum will resume his positive trend. But how many false starts must he have before the Giants acknowledge how alarming this is? After two encouraging outings, Lincecum suddenly looks — again — like someone who needs more of a respite than the All-Star break will provide.

“A little hiccup tonight,” Bochy maintained. “His stuff’s fine. He’s healthy. We’ll need him in the second half to pitch like we know he can.”

Teams can get by with one inconsistent starter. Lately, the Giants have had two. Barry Zito allowed an OPS of .871 over his past five games, and his peripheral numbers portend a ruinous second half.

So, yes, the Giants need to add a starter. I’m not talking about Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels or Matt Garza. They make too much money. Milwaukee’s Marco Estrada — a swingman who earns close to the minimum — is more the idea. San Diego’s Clayton Richard or Seattle’s Jason Vargas would make sense, too.

Lincecum and Zito account for more than $37 million in salary this year, so it’s not feasible to trade them. They are on the roster, for better or worse. But the Giants need to buy their insurance policy now, or they may be left with only three trustworthy starters by Labor Day.

Sabean should feel compelled to act this month, because, with moderate tweaking, this team is capable of a deep postseason run. Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner constitute one of the best starting trios in baseball. The bullpen has adapted well in the absence of injured closer Brian Wilson. And while the Giants could use a right-handed outfield bat — think San Diego’s Chris Denorfia — the lineup is much better than it was one year ago.

In fact, these Giants are doing a better imitation of the 2010 world champions than last year’s group ever did. The ’11 Giants never seemed comfortable with the burden of defending their title — at least, not after Buster Posey’s season-ending injury. This is their mulligan, minus Aubrey Huff’s rally thong.

The brand of baseball is similar to 2010: excellent pitching (at least three out of five nights), enough timely hitting and Bochy’s steady hand. The irony is that the cast has changed so much. Of the position players who started the World Series clincher behind Lincecum, only Posey was in Tuesday’s lineup. The Giants’ best all-around player this season — outfielder Melky Cabrera — arrived in a trade last November.

Cain agreed that the Giants have regained an element they lost last year, saying, “It started off with having Buster back, adding two guys — Melky and (Angel) Pagan — and pieces here and there. (Ryan) Theriot’s been a huge asset to us, Pablo being healthy. Everybody’s finding ways to do the right things.”

Now, Sabean must do his part. With nightly crowds of more than 40,000, there’s more than enough money in the organizational coffers to make a modest upgrade. And if the Giants rationalize themselves into placing too much faith in Lincecum, history may repeat itself: In four of the past five seasons, the NL West leader on the Fourth of July failed to win the division.