LOS ANGELES – The Giants are wedded to Matt Cain for the long term and betrothed to Buster Posey for even longer than that. The franchise and the clubhouse belong to those two men, for now and the foreseeable future.
So where does that leave Tim Lincecum?
“I don’t know,” said the two-time Cy Young Award winner, who might be making his final season-opening start as a Giant when he takes the mound Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. “That’s not something I’m 100 percent familiar with. We’ll wait and see. We’ll answer that question at a later time.”
Lincecum, so strongly identified as a Giant, became the franchise's greatest pitcher since Juan Marichal when he won Cy Young Awards in 2008 and '09. He had that 14-strikeout game against the Atlanta Braves in the 2010 NL Division Series. He became a secret weapon out of the bullpen last October, when the Giants won their second World Series title in three years.
And he is a free agent after this season. Another year of frazzled outings and a high ERA would make it easy for him to seek a change of scenery and easy for management to justify parting ways with a player who retains a massive following in the Bay Area.
Yet a resurgent year could hasten Lincecum’s departure as well. If he'll command a big number in free agency, it'll be hard to imagine the Giants being willing to dole out another megadeal, after committing $271 million to Cain and Posey. A team has to retain some financial flexibility, after all.
I asked Lincecum a question that’s worth more than $64,000: Do you have any regrets over turning down a long-term deal (reportedly five years, $100 million) when it was on the table after the 2011 season?
“No,” said Lincecum, who instead signed a two-year, $40.5 million contract that took him through his final two arbitration seasons. “It was a time where I was in my life, I wasn’t exactly ready to commit that kind of time over something that I was still learning about, by that meaning just being in this business of baseball.”
Learning whether you wanted to keep playing?
“No, not that,” he told me. “More like, it’s hard for me personally to just commit years of my life ahead of time. What I’m focusing on is what I want to do now. I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“I’ve never been a guy who thinks too far ahead with my future. I think I’ve made that clear with my contracts. I’m still that same guy. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a Giant any less or anything like that. I just like to see where I am at the end of the year.”
I told him that some people would perceive it that way – that he didn’t want to be a Giant.
“Well, I mean, it’s not my job not to make people have that assumption or not,” he said.
Cain and Posey made different choices, and Lincecum said he was ecstatic for them -- both when Cain signed his deal last year, and when Posey's eight-year extension was announced last week.
“You can see the team wants to move and they see guys like that who can be staples in the organization and they obviously are,” Lincecum said. “Cain has been Mr. Consistency and Buster has done so many outstanding things, even with his (ankle) injury. He showed the passion he has for the game to come back from that. He’s got a lot of resiliency and obviously he’s such an asset with his bat. Everybody feels that way about him in the clubhouse.”
Posey will start behind the plate and catch Lincecum on Wednesday. That battery is likely to combine more often than last season, when the NL MVP’s workload was being monitored carefully.
Lincecum didn’t get to work with Posey much this spring because of a blister issue that cost him two starts, but the right-hander and Seattle native said he’ll enter his first start “with a level head and a lot of optimism, a lot of confidence” that he’s better prepared physically and mentally.
Last year, Lincecum's 5.18 ERA was the highest among all qualified NL starters. I told him what some of the metrics indicate, especially a relatively high opponents’ .316 average on balls in play. According to the law of averages, Lincecum could pitch exactly the same way this year and likely wouldn’t give up as many hits.
“That’s nice, I guess,” he said. “But I want to be a lot better than that.”
Lincecum said yes, he did read a vote of confidence into Giants manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti slotting in the No. 3 spot and pitching in this first series against the Dodgers. Then again, Lincecum wasn’t assuming he’d have any place in the rotation.
“Obviously, they wanted me to be a starter this year, and whether it’s the three or five spot, I just wanted to be included in that,” he said. “I’m not sure if I earned it with my spring numbers or my tenure and what I’ve done in this game, but you take it as a sign of respect that they had faith in me to get the job done.”
There wasn’t a summit to tell Lincecum he’d remain a starting pitcher. “It was more known than anything,” he said.
“Coming off a lackluster year for me, it’s trying to surprise myself in a way, and surprising other people would be big for me,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m on trial. My biggest judge is myself. You’ve got to learn to be forgiving too, and embrace it. I learned a lot by what I went through last year.”
This year will provide another learning experience. And this offseason might be the biggest classroom of all.
Yet Lincecum is willing to embrace the uncertainty. He could’ve been a Giant for three more years, but he won’t play the what-if game – even if he knows other people will have a hard time understanding the way he thinks.
“I just didn’t ever want to feel like I’m playing the game as an obligation,” he told me. “I want to play for my team and for passion and to always have that feeling inside. I’ve always played this game with my heart.”