Tim Lincecum was key to new era of success for Giants

Tim Lincecum is done for the season, finally succumbing to hip surgery that will require five months of rehab to get ready for the 2016 season. It's also possible he has pitched his last game for the San Francisco Giants, as he'll become a free agent at season's end and, really, hasn't pitched all that well in several years.

If he has pitched his final game with the Giants, well, it was a heck of a run.

There are some who would say, "See, this is why you don't draft small right-handers." They eventually break down, goes the old-school theory, or they end up in the bullpen, or they lose their fastball too quickly if they do throw hard, like Lincecum did. That's why many were skeptical when the Giants drafted Lincecum with the 10th overall pick in 2006 out of the University of Washington. While Baseball America rated Lincecum the No. 2 prospect in that draft due to his fastball-curveball combo that crushed college hitters, "[H]is size and unorthodox delivery scared off some organizations," Andy Baggarly wrote in the 2007 Prospect Handbook. The Giants, however, "saw him as a once-in-a-decade talent who was ready to dominate major league hitters right out of college."

Indeed, the Baltimore Orioles had the sixth pick that year. They selected high school third baseman Billy Rowell, who never reached the majors. Then-general manager Jim Duquette told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci in 2008 that "There was a feeling that [Lincecum] was short, not a real physical kid, and mechanically he was going to break down, that there was enough stress on his arm, elbow and shoulder. Our scouting department kind of pushed him down [the list] because of the medical aspect."

He reached the majors less than a year after getting drafted. I remember watching some of those early performances, this scrawny figure of a pitcher blistering 95 mph fastballs with a delivery he and his father modeled after Sandy Koufax's. Back then, he could crank it up to 97 or 98 and simply throw it by hitters. He threw his fastball more than 65 percent of the time his first two seasons, using his curveball to freeze hitters and a changeup to upset their timing.

In his first full season in 2008 he went 18-5 with a 2.65 ERA, led the National League with 265 strikeouts and won the NL Cy Young Award. The next year, he won a second one. He earned the nickname "The Freak" for his delivery, his fastball and his results, all from a 5-foot-10 guy who maybe weighed 170 pounds.

The Giants were rebuilding then, in the post-Barry Bonds existence of their franchise. Lincecum's two Cy Youngs came with teams that lost 90 games. Matt Cain, a first-round pick in 2002, had reached the majors in 2005. Then came Lincecum. Then, in 2010, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey arrived, the third and fourth of the Giants' first-round choices who remolded the team. They won 92 games in 2010 and won the World Series, with Lincecum starting the first game of the division series, NL Championship Series and World Series.

His first start was one of the great performances in postseason history. He beat the Braves 1-0, throwing a complete-game two-hitter with 14 strikeouts, a Game Score of 96, the second-highest in postseason history for a nine-inning game behind only Roger Clemens' 15-strikeout one-hitter in the 2000 ALCS. He then won two games in the World Series. How would the past five years of Giants history be different if Lincecum had lost that first game 2-1 instead of winning 1-0?

By then, Lincecum had started evolving as a pitcher. He had developed a slider and started throwing his curveball less. His average fastball velocity -- 94.2 mph as a rookie -- was down to 91.1 on average in 2010. By 2012, it was down to 90. Then it fell to below 90. His effectiveness declined. He lost 15 games in 2012 with a 5.18 ERA, a mark propped at that because of the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Bumped from the postseason rotation, he made a crucial relief appearance in Game 4 of the division series with the Giants trailing in the series, entering in the fourth inning and throwing 4⅓ innings of one-run baseball to get the win. The Giants would win Game 5 and go on to their second title in three years. They'd make it three in five years in 2014, but Lincecum made just one relief appearance the entire postseason.

He has won 108 games and maybe he did break down and lose his velocity. He still accomplished a lot more than most top-10 picks. The Giants wouldn't change a thing.

Maybe they will bring him back. "My door will always be open for Tim Lincecum. That's how much I think about him," Bruce Bochy said about the possibility of him returning in 2016. But it's time to move on from the Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner era and get somebody else to go with Bumgarner. Cain is still signed for two more seasons at $21 million per year (plus a $7.5 million buyout) but his return from elbow surgery hasn't been encouraging. Maybe the Giants will take the $30 million they paid Lincecum and Tim Hudson this year and go after one of the big free-agent pitchers this offseason. Maybe they'll start saving up to extend some of their young infielders.

Whatever happens, it was a great ride for Giants fans. Bust out those Freak T-shirts and wear them proudly this weekend.