SAN FRANCISCO -- The money in Tim Lincecum's new contract reflects a singular market. The Giants will pay him $35 million over the next two years because he means more to them, far more, than he could to any other team in baseball.
Every other franchise except perhaps the Mariners, whom Lincecum cheered as a child, would have priced him as a pitcher in steep decline, giving off sporadic hints of improvement but no sign of the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young Award winner who could summon 95 m.p.h. fastballs whenever he pleased. A small, anonymous survey of agents and executives at the end of the regular season suggested that he'd score a free-agency deal no higher than 75 percent of what the Giants ultimately bid to keep him.
High income taxes in California may have entered into the bargain; his home state of Washington has none.
But what the Giants ultimately purchased with their $35 million was the possibility that a diminished Lincecum will reinvent himself as a reliable craftsman, as well as protection against the anguish of watching him do it in another uniform.
This deal grew out of sentiment, from a fan base's unwillingness to say goodbye. Lincecum's early years heralded San Francisco's arrival as a great baseball town, mapping out its first World Series parade.
His quirks -- the corkscrew delivery, the pot bust, the open-mic profanity, the four years of shaggy hair and all that energy emanating from such a lithe physique -- matched the city's vision of itself.
If Lincecum can now become just a steady No. 3 starter, most Giants fans will savor every step of the transition, price tag be damned. No other audience could experience so much pleasure in watching an athlete strive for tireless competence. No other fans could have seen him earn $40.5 million over the last two dreary seasons and still ended up feeling somehow in his debt.
In those two years, he offered glimpses of a reboot, whether pitching spectacularly in relief during the 2012 postseason or throwing his first no-hitter this July, using a now characteristically modest fastball. All in all, Lincecum seemed strangely more at ease than he had in 2011, when his 2.74 ERA disguised the fact that his velocity had begun to slip. He often left games visibly unnerved.
"I think maybe that was a transitional period into accepting that things are going to get hard here, and I think up until then I had it pretty easy,'' he said at the end of this season. "Going into 2011, I obviously had high expectations, and that's probably why it flustered me so much, that I wasn't living up to those. Even though I was pitching all right, I wasn't pitching the way I wanted to."
He had put on extra weight that year, to "see if that would make the difference in what I thought I was already losing in my fastball from the year prior," but he hated the sluggishness that accompanied the heft. In 2012, he went to the other extreme, coming in too lean. In 2013, Lincecum made the biggest concession to his new limitations. Until then, he'd never studied hitters before games. He had always relied on instinct, riffing through a lineup. It came easily to him. He needed time to accept just how thoroughly he'd have to change.
This summer, teammate Chad Gaudin suggested the bookish approach.
"Just hanging out in the clubhouse, I was talking more about pitching to him than he was to me," Lincecum said, "and it kind of dawned on him: 'Have you ever really studied the hitters?' I never really needed to before. I always knew what I had, and I knew what my strengths were and that always worked out for me."
Gaudin made a great pitch that day. He told Lincecum to think of the data on hitters not as a crutch or a doctrine but as a way of eliminating some of the wrong answers on a multiple-choice test.
"I'm more excited about the upside I have. I'm still adjusting to the concept of using computers to exploit hitters," Lincecum said. "It's fun. It's like a chess game."
His leading goal for 2014 is to enhance his control, which will mean fighting the urge to jettison finesse and seek the old heat.
"I'm still learning how to accept it," he said. "I still want to go out there and throw hard, because I pitch with that body motion, and… if I can put something extra on a ball, I kind of want to. I know that more often than not, it's not going to go where it needs to. Usually on two-strike counts, that's where I miss down or over the middle of the plate, and that's my fault."
He turned feisty in summation. "Every year is a f-ing learning process, and I just wanted to learn it better," he said, "so I didn't have to f-ing hit the bottom again before I came back up."
Cold pragmatists might sneer at the Giants' pricey commitment to a 29-year-old whose right arm has lost its prodigious magic and who continues to figure out what that means for him in every outing. After all, the Giants could have suppressed the market for him by making a qualifying offer of about $14 million after the World Series, forcing competing bidders into draft-pick forfeiture if they signed Lincecum.
Why didn't they take that route? As a practical matter, they needed a third established starter in the fold, aside from Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, and the rest of the free-agent pool for starting pitchers runs pretty shallow. They had more time to do the deal, but instead of prolonging the negotiations, they finished up the day before the start of the World Series, making a statement both in the dollar figure and the timing.
Lincecum is still their guy.
He accepted the offer because the money probably couldn't be topped (although somebody might have given him a third year) and because the sentiment flows both ways. He still remembers how he was treated in San Francisco after a 2009 misdemeanor pot-possession charge. On the road, he'd take flak. Two Cy Young Awards probably helped insulate him at home, but he believed that he benefited from more than his fame.
"This city is pretty open with its acknowledgment of weed or marijuana, and they thought it was, I wouldn't say funny, but it's a kid being a kid. Kids mess up," he said. "They didn't go right to judgment: 'What the hell's he thinking?' And I got that even when I was walking around the city. People didn't give you that awkward look."
Street vendors began selling T-shirts that read: "Let Timmy Smoke." He understood that parents had a right to expect him to set a better example, but he couldn't help appreciating this unusual brand of support.
Lincecum owns one of the shirts. "I got a fan to throw it to me in the car," he said.
At his final start in September, fans brought signs imploring him, and his 4.76 ERA over the last two years, to return to the Giants. The pragmatists either kept their peace or didn't buy tickets that night. After the game, Lincecum finished off his interviews by addressing fans via a video camera aimed at him by a reporter from the Mission Local, a neighborhood news site.
"I know I haven't been the easiest guy to support these last couple of years," he said, "but you guys have stuck with me, and I appreciate that. So thank you."