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November 5, 2010

Future Shock

Playing the 'What If' Game with Tim Lincecum

by Kevin Goldstein

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It's easy to forget who or what a Tim Lincecum was in the spring of 2006. The righty was more novelty act than elite prospect going into his junior year at the University of Washington, and he didn't garner much serious top-10 pick consideration until the last weeks leading up to the draft. Lincecum inspired trepidation in teams for good reason; while he had just as much (if not more) swing-and-miss stuff during his college years, it came with an even more exaggerated delivery than he employs now, leading to 214 walks in his 341 college innings (and, of course, the 491 strikeouts). In the end, the combination of a one-of-a-kind delivery, extremely slight frame, and command problems scared nine teams off of the player whom scouts at the time nicknamed “Seabiscuit.” "Scared" might not be the best term to use here, since many teams genuinely (and often justifiably) felt at the time that the player they chose was superior. Still, with no baseball going on and the Giants sitting around with a World Series title, it's as good a time as any to play the "what if" game and try to figure out what might have happened had the nine teams with single-digit picks taken Lincecum, and gotten his 21.6 (and counting) career WARP in return.

1. Kansas City Royals
Whom They Took: Luke Hochevar (Career WARP: 2.0). This was the rare fun rumor that started about a month before the draft, and actually came to fruition. Hochevar has been a disappointment, but while he has failed to become a star-level rotation piece, he at least took some steps in 2010 in becoming a solid starter, despite elbow issues.
And if They Took Lincecum: Lincecum alone would not have turned around the Royals, but a 1-2 rotation punch of Zack Greinke and him would be among the best in the business, and provide an even better foundation to build on with the best minor-league system in the game.

2. Colorado Rockies
Whom They Took: Greg Reynolds (Career WARP: -1.6). A head-scratcher at the time, made even worse by the combination of Reynolds' ineffectiveness and injuries.
And if They Took Lincecum: You can dream on this one for quite a while, as the impact could have been enormous. Imagine a rookie Lincecum starting in the 2007 World Series, the 2009 Division Series against the Phillies, and even helping the team stay in the race this year. As far as what could have been, Lincecum's impact would have been greatest had the Rockies taken him, but he wasn't even in their mix, as their final three seemed to be Reynolds, Evan Longoria, and Andrew Miller.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Whom They Took: Evan Longoria (Career WARP: 21.2). Tampa Bay took the best position player on the board, and never had Lincecum in its mix.
And if They Took Lincecum: Negligible impact. They'd be a better team pitching-wise, and not nearly as good defensively. Among the teams that passed on Lincecum, the Rays are the least likely to lose any sleep over it, as they still got a superstar.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Whom They Took: Brad Lincoln (Career WARP: -0.3). Lincoln was a two-way star at the University of Houston, and among the most athletic arms in the draft. Still, four was seen as a bit too high, and Tommy John surgery delayed his career progression.
And if They Took Lincecum: Like the Royals, one player isn't enough to turn around the franchise, but this is just one of many draft mistakes made this decade that have kept the Pirates in the basement. Look at it this way: the Pirates could have had Matt Wieters catching a rotation featuring a top three of Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, and John Danks.

5. Seattle Mariners
Whom They Took: Brandon Morrow (Career WARP: 6.1). Morrow's stuff nearly matched that of Lincecum in the Pac-10 that spring. It's interesting to note that Lincecum's size and strangeness turned off some, but Morrow's diabetes (he wears an insulin pump) turned out to be a non-issue. The Mariners hurt his development by changing him from a starter to a reliever and back seemingly every 30 seconds, but he's found a home in Toronto.
And if They Took Lincecum: The impact here might be more cultural than in terms of wins and losses. Lincecum would not have gotten the team to the playoffs in any of the last four years, but the Washington native would arguably be an even bigger star and money maker with his hometown team.

6. Detroit Tigers
Whom They Took: Andrew Miller (Career WARP: -3.0). Miller was generally seen as the top talent in the draft, but he fell to sixth overall due to bonus demands. What was seen as a coup at the time didn't turn out to be, as Miller's stuff went backward as questions about his makeup continued to creep up. His big-league showing this year did nothing to provide optimism, and the 25-year-old routinely got hit hard at Double-A as well. Still, this was a David Chadd pick, and David Chadd doesn't take small pitchers in the first round.
And if They Took Lincecum: This gets a bit complicated, as Lincecum certainly helps the Tigers and gives them one of the more dangerous rotations in the game, but at the same time, the Tigers were able to sell high on Miller and use him in a package that returned perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera. Adding Lincecum and subtracting Cabrera does not make this a better team.

7. Los Angeles Dodgers
Whom They Took: Clayton Kershaw (Career WARP: 7.3). Under the guidance of Logan White, the Dodgers often identified high-ceiling pitchers with early picks, and they found the best one in the draft with Kershaw.
And if They Took Lincecum: Lincecum in the rotation makes the Dodgers more dangerous in the 2008 and 2009 League Championship Series, both of which they lost in five games, but what about the future? Kershaw was arguably the better pitcher this year, and which pitcher would you rather have over the next five years? I don't think either answer is a slam dunk.

8. Cincinnati Reds
Whom They Took: Drew Stubbs (Career WARP: 7.2). It was a minor surprise to see Stubbs go this high at the time, but in the end, only Longoria has turned out to be the better position player in the draft so far. The question then was whether the massive amount of swing-and-miss in his game would prevent his massive tools from breaking through, and that's still the case. Still, he's one of the best, if not the best defensive center fielder in the game, and the Mike Cameron comps are still apt.
And if They Took Lincecum: Obviously, Lincecum is better than Stubbs, and also would have provided the team with a much-needed ace pitcher in the postseason. Still, the upgrade is nowhere near as large as it might look at first glance.

9. Baltimore Orioles
Whom They Took: Billy Rowell (Career WARP: NA). Whoops. An overdraft at the time and even more so now, Rowell has spent three consecutive years at High-A, batting .250/.316/.371 in the process while showcasing bad defensive skills at third base and generating numerous questions about his work ethic.
And if They Took Lincecum: One of the best collections of young pitching around would be that much better. The Orioles are still a team on the way up, but Lincecum would provide them with an even greater chance of making noise in the ultra-competitive American League East.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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