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How close was Tim Lincecum to pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays?

"You know, I wouldn't say the trade was right there, because you go through a million of those things when you're a general manager," J.P. Ricciardi said Wednesday as he drove to ESPN's studios in Bristol, Conn. "But this one had legs."

The San Francisco Giants will open a three-game interleague series at the Rogers Centre Friday night and Lincecum will not be pitching, for either the Giants or the Blue Jays. Neither will Alex Rios be patrolling the outfield.

Fundamentally there is no such thing as a "close" trade. Either it's made or it isn't, and if it isn't, it means one side never thought it was close. Still, it's always apropos to talk baseball and a trade that never happened at the 2007 winter meetings is at least worth a heavy sigh or two for Blue Jays fans.

Lincecum for Rios. Even up. Just think about that. A rotation of Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Lincecum, Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum. Jesse Litsch is in there somewhere, too. Less wear and tear on Marcum and McGowan. Maybe even a transition into a bullpen role for McGowan, who hasn't pitched since July 8 of that season because of injury. Would that pitching staff have been enough to save manager John Gibbons's job in 2008 and keep Cito Gaston in retirement? Let's remember, it was hitting, not pitching, that did in the Blue Jays and Gibbons. As it is, the Blue Jays led the American League in earned run average that season. Still, the trade would have meant no seven-year, $69-million contract for Rios on Ricciardi's watch. And what about Halladay? Would the Blue Jays have been competitive enough to convince him to stay? "Never mind that you'd still have Lincecum pitching in Toronto," Ricciardi said.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean said Thursday that the discussions at Nashville's Opryland Hotel were "conceptual" and had an extended shelf life because "there wasn't any closure" until he signed free agent Aaron Rowand a few days later to a five-year, $60-million deal.

"We were desperate to build up our lineup after Barry Bonds," Sabean said, referring to Bonds's departure after the 2007 season. "Alex Rios was certainly the kind of guy you'd think of.

"J.P. is like me, able to cut to the chase," Sabean said of Ricciardi, who was fired after the 2009 season and is now an analyst for ESPN. "He approached me with a direct question - no attachments. Our approach, frankly, was to try and get them off Tim."

That's as far as it went. Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez were two starters of some interest to the Blue Jays - to this day, there are those who worked with Ricciardi who wonder if the Blue Jays wouldn't have had Cain had the deal not been so public - but in his heart Sabean knew the value of cost-effective, homegrown starting pitching. In the end, it was easier to spend ownership's money than break faith with his player development people.

Lincecum went 7-5 (4.00) with 150 strikeouts in 146 1/3 innings in 2007. Now nicknamed The Freak, Lincecum's sinewy, torqued-up delivery made him the 10th pick in the 2006 draft, out of the University of Washington, four spots ahead of Travis Snider. Cain was already a workhorse, although he would not turn into a consistently big winner. Rios, of course, was coming off a season in which he hit .297 with 17 home runs and 85 runs batted in and had also finished runner-up to Vladimir Guerrero at the all-star game's home run derby in San Francisco.

Ricciardi chuckled when asked how a Lincecum-for-Rios deal might have impacted the Blue Jays.

"I don't know if it would have changed the dynamic in our division," Ricciardi said. "It would have made our pitching more prolific, but we still would have had to score runs. Just a couple of years ago we led the league in pitching and couldn't win the division with 87 or 88 wins because we didn't score enough runs.

"I don't think it would have been enough," he added. "But it might have changed the dynamic with Halladay."

Sabean looks back at the talks not for what might have been but because of the nature of the offer.

"It was player for player - no money involved, no contracts," Sabean said. "I mean, a lot of times you get people calling gathering information. You get people chasing ambulances. But this was an old-style approach.

"It was," Sabean added, "an interesting question he [Ricciardi]posed."

Yes. Yes it was.

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