In five of his last six starts, Tim Lincecum has gone at least seven innings, and given up three runs or less.

Is he back?  Is this just a hot streak for a diminished player?

Well, this is the season where the Giants are playing for next season, so the real question is: What should the Giants pay to keep Lincecum around?

The Upside:

Well, it’s Tim Lincecum.  This is the guy who has thrown a no-hitter, and who had won two Cy Young awards…on losing teams, no less.

This guy has had the stuff to be a great pitcher for many years…until 2012.  And now, with his fastball command having apparently been found, he’s been showing that old form.  He might not be ace material anymore, but he’s still the kind of guy who sits at the top of rotation, when he’s on.

The Giants have three free agent starters at the end of the season, including Lincecum.  Four, if you include Chad Gaudin.  Finding three starting pitchers on a free agent market is hard.  Bringing back a pitcher of Tim Lincecum’s level will help make life a lot easier for Brian Sabean.

Don’t forget, the Giants have a bit of unique leverage.  They can (and have indicated they will) tender Lincecum a qualifying offer, which he’s unlikely to take.  That means that if Lincecum signs elsewhere, the other team would have to give up a draft pick.  That will help keep the price down to a degree for a player as risky as Lincecum can be.

The Downside:

In 2012, Tim Lincecum’s velocity had been dropping for a while.  But he became not just a bad pitcher, but one of the worst starters in baseball.  He had a -2.0 WAR.  After all, he wasn’t included as a starter on the postseason roster, which is just one step above…Barry Zito in 2010.

Lincecum’s been battling his control for a while.  In 2012 and in 2013, his fastball has been all over the place.  His curveball and changeup has been able to carry some of the load.  But without the fastball, he can’t carry the role of a top starter.

The Giants have quite a group of pitchers in A-ball.  Kyle Crick is proving himself to be one of the top prospects in baseball.  Clayton Blackburn has recovered from a tough start to put together a good season, and is fourth in the California League in strikeouts.  Ty Blach, who you don’t know much about yet, is having a huge debut season and is a control specialist.  He’s given up just 14 walks in 112 2/3 innings.  The next-lowest total for any picher with 100+ innings is 24.  Oh, and Chris Stratton is putting together a good year in Augusta coming back from his concussion last year.  None of those guys will be ready in 2014.  But a couple could be ready by 2015, and maybe all four by 2016.  A rotation has five spots, but want a possible bust in Lincecum taking up room in it?

The money.  Matt Cain’s making $20M a year for a while.  Bumgarner’s going to climb up to around $10M a year in just a few years.  Lincecum’s going to want in the $15-20M range.  He’s probably not going to get all that, but it’ll take a lot to keep him around.  The Giants will need to expand their budget if they’re going to be pushing $50M a year…just for three pitchers.  And don’t forget Posey’s $20M+ for those years as well.

So, what would you do?

I want to him to stay around.  Cain, Bumgarner and Lincecum have the makings of a legendary rotation.  They have two World Series under their belt, which is better than Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz had in many more years together.  The Giants already have gotten more years of that trio together than the Dodgers got from Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton together (which was just one), and could get many more.  I hope the idea of having such a rotation together for the better part of the decade, even with ups and down, is more than just a legacy and an identity, but it could be one of the most cherished groups in modern history, especially in an age of free agency moves.

But…$15M a year?  $17.5M?

People said Barry Zito got the contract he did for a Cy Young award early in his career that he only went downhill from.  Is there a warning there about Tim Lincecum?

All I can say is: I’m glad I don’t need to make that call.