Let's mark this down right from the start: Tim Lincecum is irreplaceable.

Before, during and definitely after his journey into No-Hit Wonderland last weekend, Lincecum has been the Giants' most compelling character and most powerful electrical current for nearly every millisecond of his seven seasons in black & orange.

Sometimes he has been their best player, most times recently he has not been close to that, but Lincecum has always been unique and impossible to quantify, and there is an immense value in that, no doubt.

So, yes, if and when Lincecum departs the Giants, whether it's in five days, five months or five years, there will be a void that can't be fully filled, 33 starts a year that will seem deadly dull in comparison, and several dozen moments in Giants history that will never be replicated.

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum works against the San Diego Padres in the first inning of a baseball game in San Diego, Saturday, July
San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum works against the San Diego Padres in the first inning of a baseball game in San Diego, Saturday, July 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi) ( Lenny Ignelzi )

That's stipulated. That's undeniable. That's Lincecum's unique and earned place in the Giants' past and present, with his huge smile at the end of Saturday's no-hitter in San Diego serving as a glowing exclamation point.

But... that doesn't mean the Giants have to hold onto Lincecum forever, and I think in many ways it points to the inevitable conclusion that his time with the Giants will soon and logically come to a close.

They should listen to trade offers before the July 31 deadline, and if they get a killer offer, the Giants should take it.

If they keep Lincecum through the regular season and send him out to start 13 more times (which I believe is most likely and might be the most rewarding way to end this), the Giants should enjoy every moment.

And then be wary of any free-agent bidding war while also respecting Lincecum's elevated status in franchise lore.

The facts are the facts: Lincecum is arriving at free agency this off-season, he's 29, he will want a lot of money, and he deserves to seek as much as he can get.

But the no-hitter notwithstanding, Lincecum's long-term future as a starter is uncertain, and it does not seem like the Giants' salary and roster structure is set up to pay Lincecum great gobs of money.

The last thing the Giants can afford to do is to pay Lincecum for the past and just take a flier on the future, or to base their judgments on gauzy sentiment and grand marketing possibilities.

I'm not saying this is an easy call for the Giants or Lincecum -- and who knows how many more twists this will take until November and December, when Lincecum is due to hit the market.

With all that in mind, here are five things that should guide Lincecum's near and distant future with the Giants, and the terms of his potential departure...

1. The no-hitter was tremendous fun, but in all likelihood it did not markedly increase Lincecum's trade value, and actually probably lessened it.

Lincecum threw 148 pitches on Saturday — I understand why Bruce Bochy left him out there, but that's 34 more than Lincecum's previous high total this season... and 27 more than he threw in any game last season.

You don't have to worship pitch-count mathematics to guess that, even with extra time off due to the All-Star break, Lincecum's next few starts might not be the smoothest or strongest of his career.

(Lincecum has mixed history after large-workload outings, but after he threw a season-high 121 pitches last season, Lincecum lasted only 5 innings in each of his next two outings.)

Most teams have about 66 to 68 games left, so that's about 13 regular-season starts remaining for everybody in the rotation.

If Lincecum's next few starts are iffy at best, and if you don't know his fatigue-level stretching into late-July, there's a large percentage of his remaining season that cannot be considered trade-positive.

He's at a very high "fame" quotient now. You don't win pennants based on fame, however.

2. Relievers are much less valuable than starters on any market, and Lincecum right now mainly looks like a reliever for the long-term beyond mid-2014. A great reliever, maybe, but a reliever, still.

In fact, there was a FOX report on Tuesday that some of the main trade interest in Lincecum right now is as a reliever, and you can see why: His stuff can still be overwhelming in stretches, as it was in the no-hitter and in the postseason out of the bullpen.

Again, the no-hitter was incredible, and if Lincecum keeps throwing like that, he might reverse the trend and turn right back into an ace after this two-season downturn.

But presuming the last start was a random moment and not the new rule for Lincecum, he does not seem to be set up to be throwing 9-inning gems deep into his 30s. He's on the path of John Smoltz or Dennis Eckersley -- scintillating arms moved to the bullpen for max effect and longevity.

And relievers -- even dominant ones -- don't usually draw the kind of blockbuster offers that premium starters CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee can attract.

3. Lincecum's greatest value to the Giants is probably to take his scheduled next 13 or 14 starts, either to help launch them back into the race or just to be out there in that uniform maybe for the final 13 times.

Just add it all up: The no-hitter, the excitement, 13 more starts. There's value there -- entertainment and otherwise. It's not trade value or necessarily free-agent value, but it's still real.

4. If the Giants make Lincecum a $13.3-million qualifying offer (which I believe they will), they will receive a sandwich pick (between the first and second rounds) in next year's amateur draft if he signs with another team.

Any trade bid right now would have to top that value, and the Giants have done well with these picks. Can they turn that pick into an effective -- and cheap -- player? That's what the Giants have to believe they can do.

5. The Giants, like any team, can use every effective pitcher they can get, but they probably can't afford to spend $8M to $12M a year on Lincecum into the future if they're not sure what they're getting.

This is assuming that, at minimum, some other team will offer Lincecum five years, $40M to either be a super-reliever or to be a third or fourth starter with the option to move to the bullpen at some point. I'd guess it'd be higher than $8M per, too.

The Giants could do that, too, probably, but there are budget issues:

  • They owe Matt Cain $20M in each of the next four seasons (through 2017) and then have a $21M team option for 2018, with a $7.5M buy-out.

  • Madison Bumgarner's salaries start going into serious territory in 2016, when he is due $9.75M and after that the Giants have $12M team options on him for 2017 and 2018.

  • They'll be getting out of Barry Zito's deal this off-season (he won't trigger his $18M option for 2014 because he's coming up way short of the 200-IP trigger, and that means the Giants can buy him out for $7M), so yes, the Giants will have some money to pay Lincecum or someone else.

  • The Giants will have to invest money in hitters -- either to re-up Hunter Pence or to go find somebody else, and they will have to parcel out money to re-up or replace Pablo Sandoval after 2014.

  • They also owe Buster Posey $143.5M over the next eight seasons.

    The Giants can afford tossing around a few more millions to keep a fan favorite, no doubt. But if you're looking at putting together a sensible payroll -- and to keep it under $150M or so -- it's hard to see going too high for Lincecum.

    When you presume that it's almost impossible to find a quality starter on the scrap heap for below-market prices, I mostly agree.

    And then I think about it, and point to: Ryan Vogelsong in 2011 and Chad Gaudin this season.

    The Giants are good at this. It's not easy, but they have a proven record of sorting through the discard pile and finding an arm or two they can plug in and get production that's comparable to or better than the bottom part of their established rotation (or anybody else's established rotation).

    If Lincecum leaves this off-season, he will be impossible to replace for so many reasons and he will badly missed.

    But practically, the Giants have to start planning for the future beyond him, and they have to believe it can work without him.

    It's cold-eyed common sense, and it could turn the last part of 2013 into very special emotional territory for Lincecum, his fans, and the Giants franchise as a whole.

    He's worth it, he is owed that respect, and judging by last Saturday, he's ready to turn every start into some piece of history.