Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Signing Tim Lincecum could keep Mariners out of trouble

Jerry Dipoto was baseball’s busiest general manager over the winter, making deals with the zeal of a visionary who identified what he wanted and knew how to get it.

The flurry of trades has helped vault the Mariners into a first-place team that has no obvious flaws. A solid rotation, a reliable bullpen, sound defense, a lineup that can put together small-ball rallies and long-ball outbursts: This is how you win 90 games and end a 15-year playoff drought.

Still, there's another move awaiting Dipoto, a move so sensible it defies argument.

Sign Tim Lincecum.

The former Giants right-hander is a free agent attempting to rebound from a left-hip injury that required surgery last September. He held what amounted to a no-opponent audition the other day in Arizona, where he pronounced himself healthy enough to pitch “a good five or six more years.”

The 31-year-old Lincecum realizes no pitcher eight months removed from hip surgery is a candidate for a lengthy contract, so he’s not looking for one. All he’s looking for is a club able to give him a chance to start in 2016. If that means working out of the bullpen for as long as it takes to regain his endurance, Lincecum insists he’s amenable.

Dipoto might be inclined to follow the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but any shrewd general manager comprehends that what isn’t broken today might very well be broken come June or July, when a quick-fix solution costs some combination of proven players and prospects.

The Mariners’ pitching staff is generally healthy, but the road trip they concluded Sunday with a 5-1 defeat at Houston underscored the volatile uncertainty of big-league arms. Reliever Tony Zych got sent home with an ailing right shoulder and was put on a disabled list that already includes relievers Joaquin Benoit, Charlie Furbush, Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook.

Taijuan Walker’s sore neck turned out to be no more than a scare, but what a scare. For a few minutes Friday night, Mariners fans feared the kind of news that can a derail a rotation — and a season. Meanwhile, despite Felix Hernandez’ 2.21 ERA, he’s struggled with control and there are suspicions something is awry.

And then there’s Hisashi Iwakuma, who had a free agent deal voided by the Dodgers because a physical exam revealed unspecified issues likely related to his right arm. Iwakuma, 35, was born and raised in Japan, where pitch counts are as foreign as tacos. Before the Mariners signed him in 2012, he was a veteran of 1,541 professional innings.

Iwakuma threw 98 pitches Sunday and couldn’t make it to the sixth. He’s 1-4 with a 4.19 ERA, and I’m getting the sense the Dodgers’ decision to recant their free-agent contract offer to him wasn't impetuous.

Back to Lincecum: He’s not the same pitcher who won three World Series rings and two Cy Young awards with the Giants. The velocity on his once-feared fastball last week ranged in the no-fear zone of 89 and 91 mph, and though he appeared to have sure command of his curve and changeup, he wasn’t facing actual hitters.

But “The Freak” is nothing if not a craftsman who knows how to win. He started 15 games last season, with a bum hip, and finished 7-4. His postseason record, dating to 2010, is 5-2, with a 2.40 ERA. When a team has playoff aspirations but lacks pitchers with playoff experience, there has to be room for Tim Lincecum.

As you probably have heard, Lincecum is a Seattle-area product whose stellar career at the University of Washington culminated with the 2006 Golden Spikes Award, emblematic of college baseball’s No. 1 player. The Mariners were in position to draft him that year, but chose Cal pitcher Brandon Morrow, a third-team all-conference selection.

It’s history, there’s no time machine offering do-overs, and bemoaning the lost opportunity to pair The King and The Freak as rotation co-anchors is fruitless. Teaming up a clearly past-his-prime Linecum with a maybe past-his-prime Hernandez cannot compensate for the Mariners’ dunderheaded draft of 2006.

Signing Lincecum wouldn’t be about addressing a mistake of the past. It would be about avoiding a mistake lurking in the immediate future: A 90-win team undone by a dearth of pitching depth.

With five Seattle relievers on the disabled list, Lincecum can contribute out of the bullpen. With the 35-year old Iwakuma looking vulnerable after having thrown a gazillion pitches in Japan, Lincecum can start, too.

Dipoto stands to get all of this without losing a draft pick or prospects. He stands to get all of this without having to guarantee a long-term contract.

Tim Lincecum is the essence of the low-risk, high-reward acquisition who can transform a fun summer into an unforgettable one.

Your move, Jerry.

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