Lincecum's short-relief stint should be short-lived
It would behoove Giants to get right-hander back on track as starter in '13
It is easy -- too easy, perhaps -- to get swept up in the storylines of the postseason and ignore the bigger picture.So it is with the story of Tim Lincecum coming out of the San Francisco bullpen, erasing all those memories of his remarkably substandard 2012 season and providing a big boost to the Giants' bid to win their second World Series crown in three years. To his credit, Lincecum has embraced this relief role, for the good of his team. Also to his credit, he has shown the strike-throwing poise that had largely eluded him in the season proper. Lincecum's relief line this postseason: 10 2/3 innings pitched, three hits, one run (earned), 14 strikeouts, one walk, zero home runs. Dominant.
When the Giants were getting shaky starts early in October, Lincecum was a major mopup man, instrumental in forcing a Game 5 with the Reds in the National League Division Series. And now that the starting situation appears straightened out, "The Freak" remains a valuable, gas-peddling piggyback option. He'll be available again out of the 'pen when the Series resumes with Game 3 on Saturday (4:30 p.m. PT air time on FOX, 5:07 p.m. first pitch) at Comerica Park. Lincecum, who had experience closing games as an amateur, genuinely seems to have enjoyed himself in this month in which he's served as a not-so-secret weapon coming out of the 'pen. After all, what's not to enjoy about the way things are going for the Giants? "He seems comfortable," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I think he looked forward to the challenge of coming out of the bullpen." Unsurprisingly, this success has spawned chatter over whether the Giants ought to make this a more permanent arrangement in the next season proper. In 2012, the Giants have gotten by with what basically amounts to a closer-by-committee scenario, with Brian Wilson on the pine all year. Whenever he is ready to pitch in 2013, Wilson, following his second Tommy John surgery, will be an iffy proposition. And it remains to be seen if Sergio Romo, who has undoubtedly done well in the ninth in recent weeks, is a long-term fit to close. Given that general instability, sure, you can't help but wonder what it might be like to have a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner closing out games. And to be sure, the only scenario in which it would make sense to even consider Lincecum as a permanent reliever would be in the high-leverage spots in the late innings. Otherwise, what's the point? Lincecum's body type and unorthodox delivery have always opened the door to questions about his durability, and concerns about his mechanics have amped up that conversation considerably. An unimpressive start against the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series served as further proof that Lincecum remains a long way from the bankable, top-end rotation commodity he once was. But the bank is one factor prominently at play here. The 2013 season will be the final year in which the Giants have contractual control of Lincecum, at the decidedly non-bargain rate of $22.2 million. If you are stubborn in your belief about the value of a go-to closer commodity, well, this World Series setup, in which the Tigers have a headache on their hands with Jose Valverde and the Giants are getting by largely on methodical matchups late in games, ought to refute that rationale quite well. Besides, nobody in their right mind would willingly dole out those kinds of dollars for a guy whose workload requires less than 100 innings. That's the monetary motive behind giving Lincecum another shot in the rotation next season. There is also the personality perspective that must be taken into account. Lincecum might be buying into the relief proposition now, as the Giants are swept up in the sway of the postseason stage. But is anybody naïve enough to think he'd whole-heartedly embrace the option next spring? Already, Lincecum, who, remember, is only 28, has made clear his preference. "I might eventually entertain that idea, but until my career is done as a starter, I probably won't lean that way," he said after Game 1 of the Series. "I'd like to start my whole career until starting isn't a possibility anymore. Right now, I just want to help the team in any way I can. That was my mentality going into the postseason." And the Giants' mentality, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will be to do everything in their power to try to get Timmy back on track as a starter. At present, this seems a tall order. Among his many ugly stats from 2012 (a 5.18 ERA, 1.468 WHIP and 1.1 homers allowed per nine innings), Lincecum's 4.4 walks per nine innings -- nearly one full batter more per nine innings than he allowed in 2011 -- might be the most jarring. That's a clear-cut mechanical and command issue that proved not easily solved. But motivation shouldn't be an issue to a guy going into a contract year with something to prove, and Dave Righetti is one of the best pitching coaches in the business. Mere months ago, Lincecum was considered one of the best starting pitchers in the sport. A shift in roles, based on an extraordinarily small postseason sample, would be a panic move -- and a financially reckless one, at that. So don't get too swept up into this particular postseason storyline. It will be as short-lived as Lincecum's current short stints. Whether or not the Giants walk out of this World Series with another ring, they'll know Lincecum has given them new reason to believe he can find his old swagger. But they'd be foolish not to apply that belief to a starting spot.