SAN FRANCISCO — Joe Panik’s season started with a pretty cool bit of history. The second baseman accounted for the first three runs of the Giants’ season, all coming on solo homers, the first two of which were game-winners off Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen.
Six months later, Panik’s name is again coming up in trade rumors. It’s not impossible that he would be non-tendered, becoming a free agent. How did we get here?
Let’s run through the highs and lows of Panik’s strange season, and figure out where the second baseman and the Giants go from here …
What Went Right:
Panik hit solo shots in a pair of 1-0 wins over the Dodgers to start the year and homered again in the home opener. The Giants became the first team in MLB history to get the first three runs of their season on solo homers by the same player. When Panik took Kershaw deep in the fifth inning on Opening Day, he became the second Giants second baseman to homer for the only run of a win. When he took Jansen deep in the ninth a day later, he became the first player in MLB history to drive in the only runs of back-to-back 1-0 wins by hitting solo homers. It’s hard to find firsts in MLB these days, but Panik did it, and he was the star of the season’s first weekend.
When Panik homered again in the fifth game of the season, he talked of a new approach, and it all looked sustainable. It was easy to picture him hitting 15 homers or maybe more, especially since he had hit 10 on the road in 2017 and it only took him four innings to get one at home in 2018.
Even in a down year, Panik showed off what may be his best trait as a hitter. He struck out in just 7.7 percent of his plate appearances, by far the lowest rate in the NL. Panik has led the league in strikeout rate for three consecutive seasons.
[RELATED: Panik plays first base]
What Went Wrong:
After the hot start, Panik’s numbers took a serious nosedive. He went on the DL twice and never found any consistency, finishing with a .254/.307/.332 slash line and an OPS+ that made him 23 percent worse than a league average hitter. Those were career-lows across the board. He hit just one homer over the Giants’ final 157 games.
“I know what type of hitter I am,” Panik said on the season’s final day. “The numbers are what they are, but it’s not even close to where I want to be.”
Panik is still just 27, but opposing scouts have pointed to some concerning trends. His sprint speed was 25.6 feet per second, which ranked him ahead of just Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey. He hit the ball on the ground nearly 50 percent of the time, repeatedly grounding out into shifts. Panik’s defensive metrics no longer stand out, and members of the staff had concerns about how many grounders up the middle got past him or under his glove.
One of the injuries — a thumb sprain — was a bad break on a tag play. The other was a groin strain. It added up to just 102 appearances.
Panik made $3.45 million in his first year of arbitration. He is under team control for two more seasons. MLB Trade Rumors projects him at $4.2 million in 2019.
After Bobby Evans was dismissed as GM, Panik talked about an uncertain future.
“It’s all about whoever comes in and who they feel is the best fit for the organization going forward,” he said. “You hope it’s you, but at the end of the day, it’s not your call.”
The Giants almost certainly will tender Panik a contract, but after that, his future will be up to a new president of baseball operations, one who has no connection to Panik’s past successes. If the Giants really intend to “shake it up” on the field, second base is one of their only options, because much of the diamond is covered by players with no-trade protection. Panik was quietly shopped last offseason and likely will be again this winter, but his value is at an all-time low, and the Giants don’t exactly have a replacement. They do not view Alen Hanson as an everyday player, and while there are plenty of second baseman on the free agent market, they all come with their warts, and most of them are in their thirties. The best course of action may be to hope for a bounceback season from Panik and bolster the lineup with additions to the outfield corners, but as Panik noted, “it’s all about whoever comes in and who they feel is the best fit.”