The past three weeks of San Francisco Giants baseball has renewed the fabled “torture” theme that drove last year’s surprising playoff run all the way to becoming World Series Champions for the first time since the team moved out West from New York in 1958.

This year is different though. The “torture” will last well past the conclusion of the 2011 World Series, whether the Giants participate or not.

August proved to be a difficult month for the Giants in 2010, when they managed only 13 wins. The 2011 edition has not been any easier.

Players and executives within the organization are joined by the fans, who are holding out hope that this recent rough stretch the team has experienced—marred by injury after injury—will prove to be just another hiccup on the road to hot September and another lengthy postseason run with designs on defending their 2010 title.

The Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks are each playing out the remainder of the schedules against clubs that will not be featured in the postseason.

The Diamondbacks, ahead in the NL West standing by 2.5 games, are currently in the midst of a three-game losing streak and playing the pitching-tough Atlanta Braves—the current NL Wild Card leaders—have six more games against the Giants.

San Francisco will need to take advantage of those two series if they are to push themselves back into October baseball.

For the sake of Giants fans around the Bay Area, they better take advantage of this window of opportunity because this offseason could mark the “beginning of the end,” so to speak.

To make a push this season—to win now—the Giants mortgaged a portion of their future by trading top minor league pitching prospect Zach Wheeler to the New York Mets for Carlos Beltran.

If they fail to capitalize on that move—i.e. missing out on the postseason, Beltran is a free agent after the season, much in the same way he left Houston post-2004 after joining midseason—they could find themselves regretting the decision. 

Particularly if their current ace and two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum chooses to leave town via free agency.

The two-year contract that Lincecum signed with the Giants in his previous trip to arbitration, earned by achieving Super-2 status, comes to a conclusion after the final out of the 2011 World Series.

Lincecum still has two years of arbitration remaining, so he will be back in black and orange for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but that could be the end of his tenure as a San Francisco Giant, and Bay Area fans may need to come to terms with this reality.

“I feel as though the Lincecum people were put off by the arbitration process, they didn’t like it,” Greg Papa said in his weekly radio show on 95.7 FM The Game with host John Lund this past Friday.

Past frustrations, continued success and a lack of run-support were all reasons that Papa gave in a 10-minute segment where he explained his belief that the Giants need to lock up Lincecum to a long-term, top-tiered contract this offseason, rather than waiting until his arbitration years have expired.

By then, it might be too late.

“If they don’t [sign him], and he goes to arbitration again, I think he’ll play out the system and go to free agency,” Papa said.

“Even if they offer him that type of deal right now, I don’t know what he will do.”

The type of deal that Papa was referring to was in the ballpark of Cliff Lee’s current contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, signed before the 2011 season (five years, $120 million).

Few would argue that Lincecum doesn’t deserve that kind of money. But it could be out of the Giants’ price range thanks to crippling contracts given to the underperforming Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand.

“The payroll’s $120 million, but can you go to $180 million? I don’t think they’re going to do that,” said Papa.

There’s an argument to be made that Lincecum makes the team more money than he costs them. This has proved true during his tenure with the club since being called up in 2007.

Following the World Series victory, they may not need his name-value to boost merchandise sales, and all home games have already sold out in 2011.

Eventually the World Series effect will wear off though, and the Giants will need to make a decision about how much Lincecum earns the team versus costs them.

While he doesn’t make fans stand at attention—whether it be putting down their Garlic fries or stopping their walk along the right-field promenade like Barry Bonds once did—Lincecum’s pitching appearances are nothing short of spectacular. He has created a buzz around his pitching days.

Do the Giants want to lose that?

The reality for San Francisco though, is that they may not have much of a choice. By trading Wheeler, the Giants lost their next “ace” who may have been capable of replacing Lincecum.

Drafting the next Tim Lincecum is no guaranteed thing. After all, who saw that tiny, frail kid from Washington becoming such a dominant force?

He provides more to the Giants than just on-field production. He is a personality, the personality of the Giants, the most recognizable player on the team and their MVP.

Attending a game at AT&T Park, you’re likely to see as many kids wearing Lincecum wigs as Pablo Sandoval-inspired Panda hats. Maybe more.

There are two things the Giants front office must focus on this offseason—and over the next two years—to ensure that the face of their franchise remains with the team.

First, they absolutely need to offer Lincecum a contract that approaches the Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia levels, recognizing him amongst the best in baseball and compensating him as such.

He deserves—and needs—to be paid higher than the contract given to Barry Zito, who was left off the playoff roster in 2010 and has never justified his price tag as a Giant.

The Giants should give Lincecum an escalating salary over the next two seasons, covering his arbitration years, with a five-year extension tacked onto the end (making the total deal a seven-year extension).

It’s risky, but, “You have to give him the money, and you have to do it now. I don’t care if you got burned by Barry Zito, you can’t lose this guy,” said Lund during the radio program.

Second, the Giants need to address their offensive woes and give Lincecum a chance to start building his win total.

Ten times this season the Giants have failed to score a run while Lincecum was on the mound; three times they have been shutout.

Lincecum is losing wins that he deserves. While it may not be an issue he is concerned with at the moment, it will start infiltrating his thought process as he starts to think about his legacy in the game.

“The next contract he signs will impact his legacy in the sport,” said Papa.

“When you’re a great player like these guys are, that big contract will be years enough where it will determine if you go to Cooperstown or not. How many wins you gonna get. I know the new sabermetrics, wins are overrated. NO THEY’RE NOT (see Felix Hernandez 2010 AL Cy Young). You need to win. You pitch, your team needs to win.”

It’s an argument that has merit, and Brian Sabean had better address it in the offseason.

There is little reason for Lincecum to agree to a long-term extension until he sees the Giants start putting the pieces around him that will give him the support he needs to compete for a 162-game season.

Any more dominant pitching performances where allowing one earned run still ends up in a loss may start to wear on “Timmy.”

Trading for Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline was a good move (had he not got injured), but Lincecum deserves that kind of hitting power in the lineup.

Papa added, “You can make the Hall of Fame without winning, but the reason the Red Sox and Yankees get all those guys is because they offer you the chance to pitch in the playoffs and pitch in the World Series, and that’s what Lincecum wants.”

“You don’t think the Yankees would like him in pinstripes?”

A one-two combination of Sabathia, Lincecum, or vice-versa, is enough to make most teams quake.

A second World Series title would go a long way to building the case that Lincecum is one of those rare generational players that could end his entire career in a Giants uniform.

Ultimately there will come a time where he will start thinking about what he could accomplish if he jumped ship and joined an organization that would give him the opportunity to consistently win 20 games and provide the kind of run support he deserves.

This offseason, Sabean will need to start by putting together a lineup that can support his already-impressive starting rotation. Once he has begun to address that issue, he needs to do his best to find a way to avoid a second arbitration process with Lincecum or risk losing his superstar after 2013 to free agency.

He’s already started. While it generated little press, the Giants just signed their second-round pick in the 2011 player draft, Andrew Susac, a catcher with an above-average arm and plus-power at the plate (see the end of the article), as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins in Saturday’s edition.

Lincecum will get his money—just maybe not with the Giants.

As much as he enjoys playing in San Francisco, he may jump at an opportunity to secure his place in Cooperstown while collecting rings with another franchise. And not shaking his head as he looks at his box-score from the night before, resulting in another one-run loss.

As Papa summarized in his talk with Lund, “There’s a point in time when you have to make a business decision [not] for your bank account, for your legacy.”

The same can be said of the Giants this offseason.

The deal that Lincecum arrives at spring training with in 2012 will tell us a lot about the direction of the franchise beyond the coming two seasons.

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