Tim Lincecum Giants 2012 World Series ParadeTim Lincecum will be a free agent at the end of the season. For years, the idea that Lincecum would leave San Francisco and sign with another team for gobs of money sent fans in a tizzy. When the Giants inked Matt Cain to a 5-year/$127 million deal just before the 2012 season, many fans fretted that there wouldn’t be any money left for Lincecum.

Then 2012 happened.

The Freak lost whatever fastball command he had. Even when he backed off a bit, and dropped the velocity to 88 or 89 mph, he still couldn’t put the ball where he wanted it. Hitters pounded the pitches that came in right over the plate and they laid off Lincecum’s changeup, long his devilishly good out pitch. His walk rate ballooned to 10.9%, his strikeout rate dropped to 23%, the lowest of his career, and his home-runs-per-fly-ball rate shot up to a frightening 14.9%. His ERA followed, reaching a career-high 5.18, the fourth highest in the majors among qualified starting pitchers. When Bruce Bochy announced that Lincecum would be in the bullpen for the postseason, there was nary a whisper of discontent among Giants fans.

He turned out to be a secret bullpen weapon.

In 17.2 innings, Lincecum allowed only nine hits, five walks and five runs — with four of the runs coming in Game 4 of the NLCS, Lincecum’s only start during the 2012 postseason. Oh, and he struck out 20. He faced 67 batters and struck out 20 of them. That’s a 30% strikeout rate.

Unfortunately for Lincecum and the Giants, that 2012 postseason bullpen magic was just that. Lincecum’s had three excellent, vintage-Timmy starts this season — April 20 against the Padres, May 12 against the Braves, and June 4 against the Blue Jays. But even with those starts —  in which he gave up a total of one run in 20.2 inning —  he is still sporting a 4.57 ERA to go along with a 10.8% walk rate and a 22.4% strikeout rate, the lowest of his career. As a starter, that’s who Lincecum is now. At age 29, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s long past his peak as a starting pitcher.

But as a reliever?

If Ryan Vogelsong hadn’t fractured a finger on his throwing hand, maybe the Giants would have, eventually, moved Lincecum to the bullpen this season. But with Vogelsong out until August at the earliest, Bruce Bochy has no choice but to send Lincecum to the mound every five games and hope for the best.

The solution?

Trade Lincecum to a playoff-contending team — preferably in the American League — with a struggling bullpen in exchange for a better-than-replacement level starter under control through at least 2014. Lincecum’s new team would get a pitcher with experience in a division race and in the postseason, one who showed in 2012 how effective he can be in short bursts. Lincecum would have the opportunity to showcase his abilities out of the ‘pen, in advance of free agency.

The Giants would get a younger, less-expensive starter to slide into the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation this season and be an option for the rotation next season. Remember, only Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are signed through this year. The Giants have an $18 million option on Barry Zito with a $7 million buyout. And while Zito was a postseason hero in 2012, his inability to pitch well on the road this year makes it less and less likely that he’ll be around in 2013. The team also has a $6.5 million option on Vogelsong for 2014. When and how strong Vogelsong returns — and whether the Giants will want to bring him back next season — are very much open questions.

Which is why it makes sense to try to get something of value for Lincecum now.

Okay. Nice idea. But what team would want Lincecum and the remaining $10 million on his contract? And who does that team have to offer in return?

First, forget the money. If the Giants don’t trade Lincecum, they’re on the hook for the remaining $10 million and get nothing when he leaves in free agency. If they could fill a hole in the rotation for this season and next, it makes sense for them to eat the rest of Lincecum’s salary, or at least enough of it to make a deal get done.

Second, think three-way. No, not that. Get your mind out of the gutter. A three-way trade.

  • Lincecum to a contender.
  • A well-regarded prospect from the contender to a non-contender.
  • A young, replacement-level starter from the non-contender to the Giants.

I don’t have a particular trade in mind, as that are many possible permutations and combinations. I do know which American League contenders need bullpen help: the Tigers, Rays, Orioles, and Indians.  The Rays seem like a particularly good fit (if the Giants agree to eat Lincecum’s salary), as Tropicana Field is a pitcher’s park. The Rays also have a deep farm system that could yield a good prospect to the non-contending team and a history of getting the most out of pitchers who seem to have hit a dead-end in their career.

As for the better-than-replacement-level starters on non-contending teams who are under control through at least 2014, for now I’ve identified Bud Norris (Astros), Jeremy Hefner (Mets), Carlos Villanueva (Cubs), and Yovani Gallardo (Brewers). You may have others to add to the list.

It would no doubt be difficult to see Lincecum traded, much less to a team the Giants could potentially face in the postseason. But the chances of Lincecum putting on a Giants uniform in 2014 look quite slim. If there’s a way to get value for him now and for next season, the Giants should jump at the opportunity.