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'The Freak' an Indian? It could've happened

Tribe drafted two-time NL Cy Young winner Lincecum the year before Giants
MLB.com

The Indians boasted an intimidating starting staff when left-handers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee gave the club a pair of aces a decade ago. Now, imagine Tim Lincecum in his prime -- his body twisting, glove rising and hair whipping around his neck as he unleashed a freakish fastball -- wearing a Cleveland uniform right alongside them.

"That would've been a good rotation," said Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti.

The Indians boasted an intimidating starting staff when left-handers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee gave the club a pair of aces a decade ago. Now, imagine Tim Lincecum in his prime -- his body twisting, glove rising and hair whipping around his neck as he unleashed a freakish fastball -- wearing a Cleveland uniform right alongside them.

"That would've been a good rotation," said Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti.

Cleveland was one signature short of making that scenario a possibility.

Lincecum became a cult hero on the West Coast while piling up strikeouts in the Bay Area for the Giants, who took him with 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2006 MLB Draft, then watched him blossom into a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner. One year earlier, the Indians had selected the right-hander in the 42nd round, but he decided not to sign a professional contract at the time.

Cleveland did what it could to try to convince Lincecum to leave the University of Washington after his sophomore season, but the pitcher was intent on returning to college. Lincecum sought a large signing bonus -- far more lucrative than players typically receive in the Draft's later rounds -- because he felt he had the upper hand when it came to negotiations.

It was the second time in three years that Lincecum turned down an offer. He also opted not to sign with the Cubs after being taken in the 48th round of the 2003 Draft.

"I had the leverage and the power in that position," Lincecum said of his talks with the Indians. "I took it as a learning experience. I got drafted out of high school in a similar round, so it wasn't something I hadn't been through before."

Lincecum was reportedly seeking around $1 million at the time. The Indians offered $700,000.

"He had pretty high expecations for a bonus," said Antonetti, who was an assistant general manager for the Indians in 2005. "At that time, there was still a draft-and-follow process. There wasn't the same signing restrictions [we have now]. So, we continued to negotiate with [Lincecum] and his representatives throughout the course of the summer, and tried to reach an agreement.

"Ultimately, we offered a considerable amount. We just didn't get quite to the level that he was expecting."

That leaves the question: What if?

After being taken by San Fancisco in 2006, Lincecum received a signing bonus of $2.025 million and reached the Major Leagues the following summer. By '08, the pitcher known as "The Freak" was taking the baseball world by storm. Lincecum won the NL Cy Young Award in consecutive seasons ('08-09) and went a combined 62-36 with a 2.81 ERA across the '08-11 campaigns.

In Cleveland during that time, Sabathia captured the American League Cy Young Award in 2007, when the Indians fell one win short of reaching the World Series. In '08, Sabathia was traded to the Brewers for a package of prospects, including Michael Brantley. Lee won the AL Cy Young Award in '08, but he was traded the following year to the Phillies, who sent -- among other players -- Carlos Carrasco to the Tribe.

After dealing Sabathia and Lee, the Indians entered into a rebuilding phase that helped shape the franchise's current run of success. Had Lincecum signed with Cleveland and given the club a third Cy Young Award contender in that '08-11 period, perhaps the organization would have approached that time period in a different manner.

After turning down the Indians' overtures, Lincecum did not spend much time thinking about what could have been in Cleveland. He did win three World Series with the Giants, after all.

"I imagine my career would have been much different," Lincecum said. "I don't think about it all too much. ... They knew I wasn't going to sign, but they still gave it their best effort. It wasn't close for me."

When he looks back on the situation, Antonetti said he focuses on the fact that the Indians made a serious push to bring Lincecum into the fold.

"The thing I'm proud of," Antonetti said, "is when you reflect back on it, we identified his skills, selected him before other teams selected him, and then made a pretty aggressive offer to sign him. ... In the end, sometimes those things don't work out."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook. MLB.com reporter T.R. Sullivan contributed to this report.

Cleveland Indians, Tim Lincecum