SAN FRANCISCO - When Joe Panik broke through and solidified a spot alongside Brandon Crawford, it looked like the Giants could be set up the middle for a decade. They even came up with a name for the duo, Crawnik, which the organization uses often on social media.
With new leadership, though, comes a new path, and it's no secret that the duo was nearly broken up over the winter. Panik was brought up often in trade discussions and the Giants did their due diligence on free agent second basemen, most notably DJ LeMahieu.
But here we are, in the month when spring training begins, with everything intact up the middle, and a wide variety of possibilities for how the infield will look at this time a year from now. In Part III of this preview series - here's Part I, on the catchers, and Part II, on the corner infielders - we take a look at the middle infielders:
Returning: Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Alen Hanson, Abiatal Avelino.
Crawford was a borderline MVP candidate in the first half last season, but his numbers tailed off after the break as he dealt with nagging injuries. Still, it was a seventh consecutive two-WAR season, and there's no reason to think that streak will end. You can bet he comes into this spring with a little extra motivation, too, after losing his Gold Glove to Nick Ahmed.
Barring a surprise February trade, Panik will get a shot to reestablish himself. He is coming off the worst season of his career, but he's still just 28, and still has elite bat-to-ball skills. Perhaps an upgraded analytics department can find a way to build on what Panik does best. If not, he could be headed for a platoon.
Hanson was a nice story last year and could be a very interesting dude under the Zaidi regime. He had a .781 OPS against right-handers last season with all eight of his homers, and he can play all over the field, including in left, where there's currently a gaping hole. That's the type of skill set that could have him in the lineup quite often to take advantage of platoon splits.
While Hanson succeeded as a left-handed hitter, Avelino has a chance to make a mark given his status as a righty in an infield full of the opposite. He impressed coaches last September with his energy and enthusiasm, and while he didn't put up big numbers in winter ball, his work in the field is notable. He played six different positions for Gigantes in the Dominican Republic, including left field and center field. The Giants believe he has a good shot at being a do-everything type.
The departed: Kelby Tomlinson, Chase d'Arnaud, Miguel Gomez.
These three combined for 265 plate appearances but very little production at the plate. Tomlinson is now a D-Back, d'Arnaud is with the Rangers, and it's unclear where Gomez has landed. Zaidi has focused on upgrading the back end of the roster, and this is one area where the Giants can surely do better.
The Giants did not sign anyone in a loaded second base market, but they did trade for Breyvic Valera at the beginning of the new year. The 27-year-old is a .299 hitter in the minors with on-base skills and the ability to play second, short, third, left or center. He's on the 40-man roster, so he enters the spring with a leg up on some others vying for bench jobs.
Non-roster invitees: Ryan Howard, Levi Michael, Donovan Solano
Howard, 24, is one of those players you hear about all the time when talking to team executives and scouts. The Giants drafted him twice and he's had a steady rise, batting .287/.335/.391 in the minors. Howard doesn't strike out much and the Giants are hopeful his doubles power (32 last season) turns into more as he matures. He could start the year in Triple-A and develop as the No. 2 to Crawford at short, with the ability to move around.
Michael, 27, had a .858 OPS at two levels for the Mets last season. He has flashed solid on-base skills throughout the minors, which is an emphasis as the Giants rebuild their roster. Michael has primarily been a second baseman in the minors, but has also played plenty of short, as well as third and all three outfield spots. You might have heard that versatility is another point of emphasis.
Having taken over 1,000 big league at-bats, Solano is an outlier with this group, but he adds some experience. He spent all of last season in the minors with the Dodgers and can move all over the infield.
Crawford is as dependable as any Giant, but the rest of this group is unpredictable. If Panik can get back to his old form, the middle of the field should be a strength for the Giants. Long-term, though, they'll need to start finding some additional depth and developing contributors again. It's been a long time since Crawford, Panik and Matt Duffy broke through …