In just a short while, the Giants will be holding a press conference to announce the new name of their home field, Oracle Park. Very soon after that, we might also see them hold another press conference to announce the signing of free agent second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, if this morning’s tweet from Ken Rosenthal is to be believed:
Interest is no guarantee of a deal, but let’s assume the Giants are serious about signing him. What would happen to beloved Buster Posey clone Joe Panik?
The infield market is about to start moving quickly with Brian Dozier headed to the Nationals, league sources tell ESPN. D.J. LeMahieu and Jed Lowrie are in play, and there’s a new name percolating: The Giants are talking with teams about deals for Joe Panik, sources tell ESPN.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 10, 2019
Passan’s tweet came two minutes after Rosenthal’s, which only suggests that it’s out there in the ether that the Giants are looking to do something with their second base position. That’s probably because Joe Panik looked bad last season. His final numbers showed steep declines in on base, power, and defense.
He was still a tough guy to strike out (7.7% strikeout rate), but there wasn’t a lot to like about his output, even though both Kenny and I wrote several articles over the course of the season about how he’ll be fine. There were plenty of indicators in the peripheral statistics to indicate that the Joe Panik we knew and loved was still in there, that he hadn’t been enveloped by a negative regression entity, and yet... the Giants still think they can upgrade the position.
And I think we all agree.
If Farhan Zaidi and company are looking to improve the team in the short term, then upgrading wherever they can for the right price is imperative. Grabbing a bunch of league-minimum guys to build up some needed depth has maintained some payroll flexibility to spend on the remaining free agents. But is D.J. LeMahieu the right free agent?
The 30-year old has been a sub-league average offensive player for the past two seasons (94 and 88 wRC+ in 2017 and 2018, respectively), and he played in Coors Field for half his games. On that note, his home/road OPS splits are telling: .793 vs. .698 in 2018 and .813 vs. .753 in 2017. That’s a Coors Field effect coupled with an age-related decline, but that’s only if we’re basing his entire career off what you probably remember him most for: his MVP vote-grabbing 2016 season.
That’s the year he went .348 / .416 / .495 with a 130 wRC+ (27th-best in MLB). Every year outside of that has been below league average (a career .699 OPS before 2016, and .767 in the two seasons since). It’s the year you remember him destroying the Giants (20 hits in 16 games) and robbing them of a hit 2-3 times a game. And there’s the main reason why we’re hearing his name: his defense.
FanGraphs had him at a +12.9 fielding runs above average at second base last season. They had him as a 2-win player, as well, and it’s fair to say that half or or more than half that value was derived from his defense alone. He leads all second baseman in Defensive Runs Saved (29) since 2016, a total that makes him 17th in baseball overall.
Steamer projects him to be a 2.5-win player in 2019 and Joe Panik a 2.3-win player. But LeMahieu will be a strong above average middle infielder on defense and Panik will be an above average hitter. If the projections hold. But the Giants might be banking on his relatively low 2019 contract ($3.85 million) to be more valuable as a trade chip than as a roster component, and the boost they’d get from LeMahieu’s defense is preferrable. And maybe they think the offense will be about even between the two players regardless of what the projections suggest.
Brian Dozier just signed a 1-year $9 million deal with the Nationals and he’s a second baseman with more power (97 home runs over the past three seasons) than LeMahieu, but is a year older and not nearly as good on defense. This would strongly suggest that this is the minimum AAV it would take to land LeMahieu. So, maybe in the realm of 2-3 years and $9-$11 million per year.
And then there’s the matter of Joe Panik. If the rumor’s out there that the Giants are looking to trade him, then it stands to reason that they will trade him before the season begins. Again, his low contract number and age (28) give him value on the trade market.
Before the offseason started, I thought one of the New York teams might make a great landing spot for Panik, but the Yankees have too many infielders after signing Troy Tulowitzki, and even though the Giants now have J.P. Ricciardi working for them, I don’t know that the Mets are a great fit, either. He’d have some sense of what the organization needs and just from the depth chart, it looks like they need another shortstop rather than a second baseman.
For the Giants, trading Panik for a player with perhaps a couple more years of arbitration or including him with another player in a larger deal (for example, the deadline to sign Will Smith to a contract without an arbitration hearing is tomorrow; the Angels are said to have been in contact with the Giants about Tony Watson and Will Smith) makes a lot of sense, and getting a comparable or even slightly better player for only the cost of money (which they have plenty of) without losing any draft picks (which they need) or prospects (which they have few) makes even more sense.
Anything can happen, of course, but with this morning’s news, it’s clear that the odds of Joe Panik being a San Francisco Giant on Opening Day are very low.