After winning Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, Lincecum has been on a sharp decline in the last two years, going 20-29 with a 4.80 ERA and 1.388 WHIP entering Thursday.
With this final start, many are going to be wondering about his future. What does he have left in the tank? Is he a starter or reliever the rest of his career? Who is interested in him, where does he fit best and where will he end up?
All are good questions that have answers.
What He Has Left in the Tank
Lincecum has pitched in 1,404.2 innings in the regular season during his career and another 54.2 innings in the postseason, not counting Thursday night's game.
He put in the same amount of work as most other starters would early in their careers. His 148-pitch no-hitter in July showed he has a lot left.
So it's not really a question of whether or not he has the gas.
Jonah Keri of Grantland broke it down perfectly with a chart on Lincecum's velocity and other problems:
When your fastball velocity drops from about 95 mph to 91 in a span of four years, that's not good. When a pitcher loses nearly 2 mph from one season to the next, as Lincecum did when 2011 turned to 2012, that's a potential red flag. Still, even the velo loss doesn't really tell the whole story.
Keri goes on to say that in an email exchange with Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus, Thorburn explained how Lincecum's early-career success came from his stride pattern:
He was able to generate ridiculous momentum early in his career (a huge advantage), and he found a timing pattern with it that he could repeat, which was critical for commanding the fastball and keeping that split-change buried under the zone. That stride and momentum required excellent lower body strength, and when his delivery fell out of whack back in 2010, the solution was rooted in conditioning...
So, Thorburn believes it's all rooted in his conditioning. For young players, it's generally not much of a problem, but as they get older, more and more goes into being able to stay in shape.
Starter or Reliever?
A lot of people have speculated whether Lincecum is a starter or reliever moving forward. While it's obvious his ability to succeed over six or seven innings has dwindled, he has shown he can do it.
Then again, if you look at what he did as a reliever in the playoffs last year, you see that may be the role he's best suited for. As a reliever, Lincecum pitched 13 innings and gave up only one run in last year's playoffs.
Four of the runs that show up on his record were from when he started Game 4 of the NLCS.
While it was only 13 innings, it does show fans what he can do when he doesn't have to worry about sustaining himself over six or seven innings. When he can go out there for one or two innings, he can make a difference in the ballgame.
Scott Spratt of the Hardball Times makes a case for Lincecum as both a starter and reliever last October:
The sample size is small, but Lincecum looks like he has made an adjustment in his new role as a reliever. The easy narrative is that Lincecum is more willing to show all of his pitches because he does not need to worry about the second and third times through the lineup.
However, that might be a similarly effective approach to take as a starter. Batters have been more aggressive against his diminished fastball this season. If Lincecum continues to throw strikes with his off-speed pitches early in counts, he could use their aggressiveness to his advantage and produce more swings-and-misses and weakly hit balls in play.
In the end, it's all going to come down to what Lincecum wants to do. Is he okay with being a No. 4 or 5-type pitcher in a rotation? Or could he be happy in a closer or setup role?
Obviously, he has a chance of making more money as a starter. But what if he was transformed into a great reliever in the way John Smoltz was? Lincecum could conceivably command the highest salary of any closer in baseball with a year or two of good work.
Who Could Be Interested?
CBS Sports' Jon Heyman wrote in late July that the Giants plan to extend a qualifying offer to Lincecum.
One reason the ask is high on both players (Lincecum and Hunter Pence), sources say, is that the Giants plan to make a qualifying offer to both after the year, which would bring them a coveted draft choice assuming neither player takes the offer. The qualifying offer is expected to be slightly higher than the $13.3 million it was last year.
Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi reported the Tigers were interested in Lincecum as a reliever prior to the trade deadline. If there is still interest there, a relief role might be what is still offered. The Tigers are set in the starting pitching department with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister.
But the Tigers could guarantee that if one of the pitchers goes down, he would be the first to get a shot at starting.
While no direct rumors exist between the Angels and Lincecum, look for them to show interest in him as a starter after the struggles of everyone except Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas and C.J. Wilson. Despite the struggles Lincecum has had the last two years, just look how he compares to Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jerome Williams this year:
With Vargas a free agent after this year, the Angels will no doubt look to bolster the rotation to improve upon 2013.
Of course, as the free-agent market takes shape, we'll know more of who will be interested in Lincecum. A team that misses out on the top free-agent starting pitchers could look to get Lincecum and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. But the qualifying offer that will cost that team a first-round pick might prevent teams from pursuing Lincecum.
Where He Fits Best/Ends Up?
The best fit for Lincecum is in the bullpen. Although it's a small sampling, he seems to have the tools to be a top-notch closer in baseball. And the Yankees will need a closer next year. How about that?
In the end, Lincecum will have to decide if he'd rather be a starter or reliever.
However, don't be surprised if Lincecum accepts the Giants' qualifying offer. With the expected offer being $13.3 million, Lincecum won't get as good of an offer anywhere else.
He can pitch another year at that rate and hope he can return to form to make a run at free agency in 2015. But if he believes the best way for his career to continue is to be a reliever, then New York would be the place to go.
It's the place that could offer him the most money and give him a chance to be on the big stage.
*Note: All stats obtained from Baseball-Reference.com and are accurate as of Wednesday, September 25.
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