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Tim Lincecum looked on pace to potentially receive the largest contract ever for a pitcher. Then last year happened.

Lincecum last season suffered through a league-leading 15 losses while giving up a league-leading 107 earned runs. His 5.18 ERA was by far the worst of his career.

That season came the same year he signed a two-year, $40.5 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. Lincecum was on pace to garner the highest ever salary for an arbitration eligible player, so the Giants instead chose to buy out his final two arbitration years with a contract.

However, the team did not at all expect Lincecum to have the season he did last year. He will again be a free agent after this season, and it’s interesting to see how the Giants -- or any team for that matter -- will approach the situation.

For what it’s worth, Lincecum is off to a decent start. But his walk numbers are too high, and he’s coming off a year in which he walked a career-high 90 batters.
Photo by SD Dirk, used under creative commons license.

This season will be telling for “The Freak,” who actually lost his spot in the Giants’ rotation for the team’s World Series run. Even if he doesn’t fully regain his form from his back-to-back Cy Young seasons, he will still be a hot commodity on the market if he proves to have a competitive year.

From the Giants’ perspective, they’d probably like to re-sign Lincecum if the price is right. Barry Zito has a team option for 2014, and the team may decide to finally move on from that enormous contract, though Zito finally panned out last season.

The Giants locked up Matt Cain to a lucrative long-term deal last year and signed Buster Posey to a major contract extension earlier this season. Those deals may preclude the team from offering Lincecum what he wants.

Before last year, Lincecum would have easily earned a contract in the neighborhood of $180 million to $200 million over seven or eight years. He’s still only 28 and was among the game’s best pitcher not too long ago.

But given last year’s debacle, teams will use that against Lincecum in any sort of contract negotiations. Last year will likely cause him to lose a few years from a potential contract. Instead of eight years, teams may offer a max of five -- and even that may be out of the question if he can’t control his base on balls.

Luckily for Lincecum, next year’s free-agent class of starting pitchers is weak. The injury-prone Josh Johnson and Matt Garza join the aging Roy Halladay as the only real frontline starting pitchers available.

If Lincecum strings together another good year, some teams may be inclined to overlook 2012 as an anomaly, especially if they are desperate for a capable starter.

But if things don’t work out this year for “The Freak,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean will look like a genius for not locking Lincecum up long-term and instead just signing him through arbitration.