What Happened To Baseball’s Best Infield?

When the 2015 season ended, it was a happy time for San Francisco Giants fans, even though the team failed to reach the postseason. The Giants’ biggest weakness in 2015 was a poor starting pitching rotation outside of Madison Bumgarner.

However, with some large contracts coming off the books and a terrific crop of free agent pitchers available, the team was perfectly positioned to acquire some big-name starters, and they did just that. The Giants bullpen put up the third-best E.R.A. in the National League in 2015, so that wasn’t a big concern (although it should have been).

Most significantly, the offense was among the best in baseball, slashing an exciting .273/.334/.413 with a 110 wRC+ (pitchers excluded). The offense was buoyed by what many called the best infield in baseball, consisting of third baseman Matt Duffy, shortstop Brandon Crawford, second baseman Joe Panik, and first baseman Brandon Belt. Not only were they arguably the best, they were also young, homegrown, relatively cheap, and controllable for the foreseeable future.

The 2016 season started with a flourish. The starting rotation, led by Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija, carried the team to new heights. The Giants were an M.L.B.-best 57-33 in the first half. All the winning masked a sketchy bullpen and a few major offensive slumps.

Among the slumping Giants were two of their star homegrown infielders. Duffy, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, hit just .253/.313/.358 with an 85 wRC+ in the first half of 2016, compared to .295/.334/.428 with a 114 wRC+ in all of 2015. Panik, meanwhile, hit just .256/.321/.407 in the first half of 2016, compared to his stellar 2015 line of .312/.378/.455 in 100 games.

Not only did the dominant front of the rotation overshadow the slumps, but an M.V.P.-caliber first half from Belt, coupled with continued excellent from Crawford, who continued to evolve from a glove-only player into an offensive force and borderline M.V.P. candidate, made everyone forget about Panik and Duffy struggling at the plate.

After the All-Star break, however, the Giants started losing. Samardzija struggled as the No. 3 starter. Jake Peavy and Matt Cain, the Giants’ No. 4 and 5 starters, were among the worst pitchers in baseball. Duffy was missing time with an achilles injury. Panik was sidelined with concussion symptoms. The “best infield in baseball” was looking thin, and one of the best starting rotations in baseball was top heavy.

On August 1, the Giants made a major and shocking trade. They sent the ultra-popular Duffy to the Tampa Bay Rays in a package for left-handed starting pitcher Matt Moore. In a lot of ways, the trade made sense for both teams. The Rays had plenty of starting pitching depth, and the Giants were playing without Duffy anyway and had a thin back end of the rotation.

Moore ended up pitching well for the Giants, especially down the stretch, and he dominated the powerhouse Chicago Cubs for eight innings in his only 2016 postseason start.

However, the trade broke up the homegrown infield in a big way. San Francisco had acquired Eduardo Nuñez about a week before the Duffy trade, and Nuñez ended up filling in nicely for Duffy before ultimately injuring his hamstring toward the end of the year.

In Nuñez’s place, Conor Gillaspie went full Superman in the playoffs, which of course the Giants ultimately lost in heartbreaking fas—actually, let’s not go there. Let’s stay in our happy place…

That’s better. Anyway, now that Duffy’s gone, third base is intensely compelling moving forward. Will the Giants be content with a Nuñez/Gillaspie platoon? Does the job belong to Nuñez outright? Third base is a position that typically demands well-above-average offensive contribution, and both Nuñez and Gillaspie are mediocre at best. Each has a career wRC+ of 93

In my opinion, the Giants should look into signing a third baseman in free agency, then utilize Nuñez/Gillaspie as bench pieces. We’ve seen this postseason how important it is for teams to have serviceable depth. Two notable free agents who could play third base for the Giants in 2017 and beyond include Justin Turner and Ian Desmond (who can also play the outfield). A trade is also possible.

The Giants mentioned in their most-mortem press conference that they like Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker for left field next year, but I doubt the team will go into 2017 relying on two mostly unproven guys (it’s their own fault that Mac/Parker are unproven—they should have played more in 2016).

This leads us to another compelling question mark: second base. Panik was selected 29th overall by the Giants in the first round of the 2011 M.L.B. draft. Many scoffed at the pick, calling it a reach.

In his rookie year, Panik slashed .305/.343/.368 with a 106 wRC+ and solid defense and base-running to boot. He played a major role in the Giants winning their third World Series in five years. Remember his diving stop and flip to Crawford on the double play in Game 7 of the World Series? Yeah, so does every baseball fan alive. So no, it wasn’t a bad start for Panik.

He was even better in 2015. In 100 games, he had a 136 wRC+ with excellent defense and solid base-running.

Then came 2016. Panik ended up hitting just .239/.315/.379 with an 89 wRC+ in 127 games. The defense continued to be excellent and the base-running once again netted positive results, but the bat completely disappeared.

What can we expect moving forward? The defense and base-running are consistently very good, so that’s not something to worry about. The real enigmas are the bat and the health.

In his career, Panik has come to the plate 1,245 times, and he’s hit .280/.343/.403, good for a 109 wRC+.

In 2015 and ’16, the two years in which he started the season on the big league roster, he averaged just 113.5 games played. He missed an average of 48.5 games each of the last two seasons. Not only is that a major concern moving forward, it once again demonstrates how imperative it is to have talented depth on the roster.

Panik has only been around a few brief years, but in that time we’ve seen him be good, great, and bad. I would expect him to perform at somewhere near his career average (.280/.343/.403) moving forward, but the computer projections aren’t so optimistic. The computers have never really liked Panik. It makes us wonder what Panik may have done to the computers! Ho ho ho. Anyway, Panik’s poor 2016 was a big win for the projection systems.

One of those systems, Depth Charts, is featured on FanGraphs, and it projects Panik to hit .266/.331/.383 with a 96 wRC+ in 2017. And it’s not like Depth Charts is just guessing. Projection systems analyze decades worth of data, including Minor League numbers, and objectively predict how players will perform in the future. By and large, the computers get it right.

There are exceptions, of course, and for the first couple years of Panik’s career, he looked like a major projection beater. He made the projections look silly when he hit .312/.378/.455 in 2015, but the computers looked all the wiser when Panik hit just .239/.315/.379 in 2016.

If Panik, who’s only 25/26, hits like the computers expect, he’ll be a solid yet unspectacular role player moving forward. However, I think most Giants fans expect much more from Panik. We’ve seen him be great, so why can’t he be great again?

Along with left field, third base, and of course the bullpen, Panik figures to be a major key to 2017. If he’s just okay, and the Giants don’t sign a better third baseman, the Giants offense probably needs quite a bit of help, and it would most likely have to come from left field. The whole “best infield in baseball” thing would have gone from reality to utterly laughable in two seasons.

However, with an upgrade at third base and a rebound from Panik, the Giants could once again have one of the best infields in the sport and be an offensive powerhouse in 2017. Like it does when Crawford flips the ball to second base on a double play attempt, it all hinges on Panik.

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