Tim Lincecum and the 2014 Yankees bullpen

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Like it or not, the Yankees will have to figure out a way to replace their all-world closer in six months or so. Not many players walk away from the game in the prime of their career like Mariano Rivera, but he announced his plans to retire during Spring Training and I would be floored if he didn’t follow through. Mo doesn’t strike me as someone who would go back on something like that.

There will be internal options and external options to replace Rivera. David Robertson is as fine a future closer as you’ll find, but with Joba Chamberlain set to become a free agent and Mark Montgomery doing his best Kevin Whelan impersonation, the current backup closer plans are Preston Claiborne and Shawn Kelley. It’s pretty clear at this very moment the Yankees will need to import a veteran reliever just to replace Rivera in the bullpen chain, not necessarily as closer. They’re losing depth.

That’s where two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum comes into the play. The 28-year-old was one of baseball’s most electric starters as recently as two years ago, but since the start of 2012 he has pitched to a 5.16 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 251 innings across 44 starts. His velocity has tailed off and the effectiveness of his offspeed pitches has suffered. He went from being unhittable to rather ordinary in a heartbeat. Lincecum will become a free agent this winter and the Giants haven’t been shy about their readiness to walk away. They already got his best years, no need to pay for the decline.

Interestingly enough, Lincecum seems completely aware of this reality and is willing to admit he is no longer the pitcher he once was. Many players refuse to accept it and think they can maintain high level of performance even when their body says no. While talking with Andy Baggarly this weekend, Timmy said he would be completely open to pitching out of the bullpen in the future (while acknowledging he wants to continue starting this year).

“I’m always open. It’s just, right now I don’t want to be open to it,” he said. “I’m sure if my career takes that turn, I’m definitely open to changes, especially if it’s beneficial to the team I’m playing for … It’s not like I don’t think ahead.I think ahead about a lot of things in my life. I just don’t think ahead in that way. … I’ll play this season to its end and try to see what happens.”

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Although he’s made just one regular season relief appearance in his career — that was part of some rain-related shenanigans back in 2008, when the Giants started a reliever in case there was a delay — Lincecum did pitch out of the bullpen in college. He used to start on Friday and close on Sunday for Washington, and he also spent a summer in the Cape Cod League as a reliever. It’s not foreign to him.

More relevant is his bullpen experience last fall, when Lincecum was used as a multi-inning setup man during San Francisco’s run to the World Series. He made five relief appearances in the postseason and threw at least two innings each time, allowing one run on three hits and two walks while striking out 17 in 13 innings. His fastball, which averaged 90.4 mph during the regular season, jumped to … 90.7 mph in the postseason. There was no velocity spike despite the change in roles.

“Last year, you’re down there and you’re running on adrenaline,” said Lincecum to Baggarly. “The situation is a little different getting the call in the Major Leagues, in the playoffs, than in a Cape League dugout … Out of the bullpen, your focus is different. You’re not thinking about lasting. It’s, ‘Go until they tell you to stop.’ When you’re starting, when you see your pitch count go up in a bad inning, that can be at the forefront of your brain. You know it’s going to (limit how deep you can go). So I guess you could say it’s a lack of pressing, when you’re relieving.”

I guess it was just a mindset thing rather than an improved stuff thing. He focused more on getting people out than being efficient and pitching deep into the game, emptying the tank rather than pleasing the pitch count gods. That mindset can change everything — pitch selection, willingness to pound the zone, willingness to waste pitches, all sorts of stuff. The sample size wasn’t big obviously, but performances like this are tough to ignore. It’s exciting to think about having that guy in the bullpen down the road.

Anyway, the Yankees are going to need to add a veteran reliever to replace Rivera, and Lincecum seems like someone every team would want to see in a bullpen. He’s shown he can be a 1996 Mo-esque multi-inning setup man and bounce back well the following days, and I’m guessing he can be a one-inning closer just as easily. The Yankees value intangibles like postseason experience and dealing with the attention that comes with being a high-profile player, which is certainly the kind of stuff Lincecum brings to the table. He’s been a rock star for years, he’s used to both the praise and scrutiny.

Obviously there is a lot more in play here than just his effectiveness in relief. First, Lincecum would have to be willing to pitch out of the bullpen for an older team with few players his age. He might not be comfortable around so many veterans. I’m guessing he’ll still a few offers to start as well, so he’d have to turn them down. As for the contract … who knows? There are no real comparables. That’s the kind of stuff we can worry about after the season anyway. Lincecum’s willingness to become a modern day Dennis Eckersley is definitely fascinating though, especially since the Yankees will be tasked with replacing their iconic closer.


  1. hornblower says:

    Rivera cannot be replaced period. Going high end and paying big money to someone learning two jobs (reliever and closer) is silly. Many pitchers are being trained as relievers in college and the minors. Among Joba, Robertson and Claiborne there may be an adequate closer. Don’t expect anything more at this point. Remember teams win all the time without a closer named Rivera. Time to move on.

    • -V- says:

      Mariano was an instant reliever after being a starter. Pretty much, so was Dave Righetti. All that requires to being a reliever/closer is acceptance of the role and willingness to make it work.

    • LK says:

      Saying reliever and closer are 2 jobs is kind of like saying teacher and math teacher are 2 jobs.

    • Laz says:

      Closer is nothing more than your consistently your best reliever. What Rivera is nothing different than the job that Robertson does, it’s only that he is better, and more consistent.

  2. FEED.ME.MORE! says:

    Interesting post.

    I don’t know what else is possibly on the free agent market this winter, but I assume the Yanks would sign a set-up guy with some closer experience to back up D-Rob.

    Lincecum could be an interesting piece as maybe a two inning guy, but I wouldn’t consider him plan A. Plus you wonder what his salary demands would be. He would get more as a starter, even as a #4 starter.

    Kelley, Claiborne, Montgomery, Cabral, etc. fill up the other spots.

  3. DERP says:

    Any interest in bring back Logan? I also want them to look into trading for Drew Storen.

  4. Robinson Tilapia says:

    Timmy is easily one of my favorite non-Yankees. If he could be effective out of the bullpen, and was willing to, I’d love to see that happen. Stranger things have happened.

    He can probably get better weed in the Bay area, though.

  5. The Real Me says:

    I chuckled at this statement:

    “walk away from the game in the prime of their career”

    Mariano may be pitching rediculousely well, but he is hardly in the prime of his career.

    I love the out-of-the-box thinking. I’d love to see what Timmy could do in an Eckersley-type role. Old-school becomes new-school once again. Doubt it happens, but I’d be really interested to see how it plays out if it comes about.

    • Improbable Island's Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR) says:

      I disagree. Compare his numbers now with his numbers at any other point in his career. Mo is ALWAYS in the prime of his career, and I make that statement with no trace of irony.

      • Dr. TJ Eckelberg says:


        Mo is the only athlete I’m aware of with like a 16 year peak.

        • The Real Me says:

          I’m not arguing that his numbers don’t match those of his many other best seaons (although his WHIP appears to be up just slightly). It’s just that when I think “prime of their career”, I’m thinking someone that will be able to maintain his current level of performance a bit longer then begin to slowly fade. I just don’t believe that with Mo right now. As he’s stated, he’s emptying the tank, leaving all he’s got out there on the field. I think if he were to come back next season, he’d be adequate at best, not the Mo we know and have loved for the past 16 or so seasons. (although I’m sure we’d all love him even if he was only adequate.) It’s not a “dead cat bounce”, since there was never a decline to speak of, but I just can’t call this the “prime” of his career.

  6. Improbable Island's Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR) says:

    Hey, this would be a pretty cool move to make. I’m game. Always liked Linececum (yeah, I’m one of those annoying people who thinks his windup is really freaking cool looking).

  7. Winter says:

    Having Tim Lincecum in a 1996-Rivera-type role would be awesome. I feel like the odds of him taking that over starting with another team are minuscule, but one can dream. Imagine if Lincecum could be effective the 7th and 8th (maybe even an out or two in the sixth in big games) with Robertson closing it out in the ninth. Obviously it’s not Mo, but that’s a pretty scary back-end of the bullpen. Add in Claiborne/Kelley (if they don’t implode) and Montgomery (if he figures out how to stop walking people left and right), plus whatever journeymen happen to be in season at the time, and you’re looking at a killer bullpen in general.

  8. Darren says:

    I didn’t understand the point about why Lincecum would potenitally feel uncomfortable on a team full of veterans. Can you explain?

    Also, I can’t imagine he’s not going to get offers to start from some teams, so unless he magically has a desire to pitch in NYC, or the Yanks blow him away with the dollars (which seems like a silly move), this seems like a long shot.

  9. Doug says:

    Trade Linesicum for Hughes and give each team a chance to see the goods before buying.

    Then you can trade Joba for whatever and give Linesicum his bull pen slot.

    Huges is a #5 these days so bring back Nuno.

  10. JD says:

    Ah … No! You answere your own question when you pointed out that velocity did not change despite change inr rolls. This works when a guy can throw 95 in shorter outings. Lay off the sauce this early in the day.

  11. Peter says:

    The same thing was said when John Wetteland left, that no one cold fill the closer role in the same way. Fortunately, Mariano was the set up man, and moved into the closer role and out performed everyone’s wildest expectations (except maybe Gene Michael). I don’t know, there hasn’t been a reliable set up man in the pipe for a long time, that shutdown after the 6th inning game, like they had in 1998, is gone. With the move to push the Yanks pay role down, bringing in Lincecum, while still weighed down with bloated contracts for declining stars seems wasteful.

    • jsbrendog says:

      “I don’t know, there hasn’t been a reliable set up man in the pipe for a long time”

      david robertson would like a word.

      and wetteland was nowhere near shutdown closer status. he was a pain in the ass to watch cause he always put men on base and did the high wire balancing act. I doubt anyone said that he was irreplaceable other than fans who don’t know what they’re talking about

    • LK says:

      I’m pretty sure Mariano has outperformed Gene Michael’s expectations.

  12. -V- says:

    Let’s not forget where Tim Lincecum comes from….the Bay Area. Nothing naturally-humanly-good comes from the street Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi used to walk on.

  13. Unless the Yankees give him a 2/3 year deal at closer money I don’t think there is any way he signs here, especially if he has offers out there as a starter.

    • mitch says:

      Agreed and i definitely think he’ll have starter offers. Some team will give him a chance just because of the star power.

      • FIPster Doofus says:

        If it’s a one-year, prove-it deal, I’d be all for the Yankees being that team.

        • jsbrendog says:

          would you though? i mean it isnt SSS anymore. it is almost a yr and a half of consistent failure in the national league.

          • FIPster Doofus says:

            Sure. I’m a fan of one-year deals. Besides, if the signing happens and Lincecum continues to falter as a starter, then he can go to the bullpen. Either you strike gold and he’s useful in the rotation or, worst-case scenario, he’s a solid reliever.

  14. Greg says:

    he’ll be too expensive.

  15. LarryM Fl says:

    Tim Lincecum sounds interesting but his price tag will be more than I believe the Yanks would want to pay. Lincecum will get offers to start as opposed to relieve. Why should he accept the bullpen at less money when he can accept starter money. He can burn out under the FA contract and be moved to the bullpen.

    Mariano use to throw his cutter at 95/96. He could hit his spots and make hitters shake their heads in disbelief. Mariano knows at age 44 its time. No one can fool mother nature.

    As far as Mariano’s replacement, it can come from within or trade. I doubt the closer comes by way of FA. The Yanks have enough talent on their 40 man roster to achieve a good mix of bullpen team. This will allow to invest in the Robbie Cano sweepstakes and a few nice aditions to the rotation and impact players.

    • The Doctor says:

      I don’t think it’s so much that Mo doesn’t think he can stay effective seeing as he’s pitching as well as ever this year; he is as we speak “fooling Mother Nature.” It’s just that he’s burnt out on it and sees this as a time as good as any to stop.

  16. Travis L. says:

    Any chance we sign Chamberlain to be the closer? He has looked good as of late and if he stays healthy…who knows. I wonder if he would take the closer role over a starting role? I know starters make more, but it might prolong his career to stay with relieving over bouncing back to the high pitch counts and such.

  17. The Doctor says:

    Yesterday on MLB Now (I’m bored at 1 in the afternoon and I generally enjoy watching Brian Kenny tear Harold Reynolds to humiliating little pieces), Brian Kenny and Eric Byrnes were discussing the possibility of using him as a “super reliever” who you can squeeze 100-150 innings out of every year. There’s no telling that he could excel in this role, but if the Yankees are willing to risk it, I think it could be a worthwhile investment. He essentially replaces a need for 7th inning and setup men, so we can just fill out the remaining spots with the Montgomerys and Claibornes. If a starter goes 6 innings, have him pitch 2 innings with Robertson in position to close. If he needs rest the next day, use the other guys to get to the 9th. If he’s well rested and we suddenly need a long reliever without wanting to blow the game, he can fill in there too.

    I am in the camp that believes multi-inning closers may very well be the future, and this would be a nice step into that. Obviously there will be exceptions when you have an ace who can give you 7 innings of what your relievers can’t give you 2 of, but there’s certainly a point–generally in the back end of the rotation–where using multiple relievers to get through a game will yield better results. Moves like this would allow guys like Hughes to use up their bullets at full speed for 4 innings, hand it off to Tim for 3, then use some other relievers to finish it out. Likely better than 6 innings of Hughes then relief.

    Sorry I’m rambling so much, I just really like the idea.

    • jsbrendog says:

      has anyone ever really been successful at that other than ramiro mendoza? and by ever i mean in the past 15ish years

      • The Doctor says:

        Not really but I think the issue there is more that the multi-inning reliever is generally treated as a mop up role. No one’s really put an elite pitcher in such a role in a while. Guys like Goose did it all the time back in the day and they had long careers which produced quite a bit more WAR than your average high end reliever these days. Mo was used similarly in 1996 (not quite to Mendoza level but I’m just talking 100+ innings here) and it was his most productive year by fWAR. I can’t really argue with the way Mo’s been used considering he’s so good, he was used most efficiently in the post-season when it mattered most, and it’s likely prolonged his career, but the general usage of top end relievers is an inefficiency.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      He’s trim. He’s ready. The mustache still looks good. Goose Gossage for 2014 Yankee closer.

  18. TCMiller30 says:

    Do you think Pineda would be able to fill that role? I think he’s essentially in the perfect position now to be groomed as a closer when he comes back in the next month or so. Start him off in low pressure situations. With his stuff in an inning or two would be devastating. It’d probably also protect him from re-injuring himself.

    … Wait.. What do you mean the Yankees have tried this before? And what the hell is a Joba?

  19. Travis L. says:

    Hell…lets trade for Papelbon!!!!

    Cue the Travis L. execution music in 5…4…3…2…1…

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      I normally get perverse pleasure out of watching their heroes put on pinstripes, but that one might be even hard for me to stomach….and I could even imagine Pedroia in pinstripes. Ponder that one.

      • jsbrendog says:

        that’s because papelbone is the most unapologetic douchenozzle baseball player i can remember as far back as the strike. people who have him on their team dont even like the turdbag

      • SDB says:

        We’d have to hear about Cinco Ocho in pinstripes, or whatever new alter ego he comes up with.

        At that point, I’ll just switch allegiance to the Nats or someone else in a different division. And continue hating, loathing and despising whichever team has Papsmear on their payroll.

  20. ROBTEN says:

    I think D-Rob can do it, but would also understand if the Yankees wanted to bring someone in for a year, simply to serve as a “bridge” year before turning it over.

    The issue is finding someone who will be willing to “follow” Mo and all that might entail from the fans/media (not that I think either should determine who closes, but given the crap that Hawkins took, it does probably at least have to be considered. There also does not seem to be a lot available on the market next year.

    Looking at who is scheduled to be a free agent, you could sign someone like Grant Balfour on a one-year deal. He’s older, but has “closer” experience the past two years, could potentially go year to year, and thus would be a “break” between Mo and someone like D-Rob.

    You could also try someone like Mujica, if you think that his time closing for the Cardinals has given him the ability to step in as the Yankees closer. Though given that he’s still relatively young and could be a product of St. Louis pitching magic, he could be too “expensive” (both in terms of salary and years).

    If you wanted to move D-Rob into the closer role, what about signing Crain to take over the late innings? Or, conversely, since Crain might take more years, you could go after someone like Uehara, who because of age might be willing to go year-to-year thus giving you continued flexibility in the pen.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      I see little reason why Robertson can’t do it. He’ll definitely be more of a Wetteland type, though, unless he can become more efficient in the role.

      It’d be nice to bring in a veteran like Balfour to caddy him, but I’m sure he gets money (and years) to close somewhere else.

      I often feel like doubting Robertson comes from the extremely SSS before he got hurt last year, and that’s pretty unfair.

      • SDB says:

        Agreed. D-Rob got way too short a rope there, and I’d like to see him get some save opportunities next year. At the same time, I don’t know how my heart will stand up to seeing so many Houdini acts in the 9th. Much easier to watch those in the 8th.

        (Shouldn’t there be something here about advanced degrees, heteroscedasticity and SSSs?)

        • Robinson Tilapia says:

          I can’t flaunt my advanced degree on a week where I’m literally at work one entire day, and am massively slacking accordingly.

          Lots of teams have to put up with Houdini-style closers. We’ve been spoiled like you wouldn’t believe.

  21. Nuke Guy (Knoxvillain) says:

    I’d be all over Lincecum if he would consider taking a deal to be a reliever or a closer. Now if only we could get Hughes to do the same.

  22. bigweiner says:

    Is this fan fiction? Does anyone really think a team trying to reduce payroll is going to sign Lincecum to mop up games? Must be a slow day at RAB.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      How much do you think a guy who’s been trending the way Timmy has, for more than one season, is going to get out there?

      There’s definitely one-year “regain your value” potential here.

      No one said anything about mopping up either.

  23. MannyGeee says:

    while i love the concept of this, and I loooooove me some vintage Timmy, I wonder if it’s “too much”. A guy on a down year or 3, coming out of the rotation to become a reliever/closer, and at what cost? Feels like a stretch… That said, gimme some Timmy Time!


  24. mustang (The Has Been & Wannabes Bunch 2013) says:

    If you followed the development of Cashman’s philosophy on how to create a bullpen you would know that this will NEVER HAPPEN.

    Cashman years of throwing large money at the bullpen is long passed him, thank God, and he is doing very well.

    • mustang (The Has Been & Wannabes Bunch 2013) says:

      Throw in the facts that they have a few cheaper MLB and minor league choices plus having other more pressing needs in 2014 the chance are slim to none.

  25. Me gustaría verlo nuevamente en su mejor nivel es una super estrella este donde este….

  26. Mister D says:

    I’m sorry, but WHY is it obvious the Yankees will need to get a veteran reliever?

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