SAN FRANCISCO - Three years removed from an All-Star appearance and two from a Gold Glove, Joe Panik found himself wondering about his future with the team that drafted him in the first round.
On November 30, the Giants non-tendered Hunter Strickland and Gorkys Hernandez. Panik signed a one-year deal before the deadline, but that was still a stressful day. There was no guarantee the Giants would bring back their longtime second baseman, not with Farhan Zaidi in charge instead of Bobby Evans, looking for areas where he could change the lineup.
"With the way things have gone the past two years, and they're bringing in a new boss, you just don't know," Panik said last week. "You have a feeling things will get shaken up, and you don't know if you're going to be one of those guys."
There were not many spots where Zaidi could realistically go in a new direction in his first offseason, but ultimately, the Giants did not make a move at second base. After an offseason of trade whispers, Panik is set to start on Opening Day, and he hopes that's just the beginning of a resurgence.
Panik went into the offseason intent on making changes following the worst season of his career. He spoke to hitting coach Alonzo Powell before he flew from San Francisco to New York at the end of the season, and the two came up with some potential fixes. Panik felt he never found his rhythm after injuries stalled his early 2018 success. In particular, he never felt his front foot was down on time.
Throughout an offseason back home in New York, Panik made the 45-minute trip to nearby Iona College, where his brother Paul is the head baseball coach. They added a higher leg kick and knee tuck that Panik felt helped with his timing. He would take video of the changed swing and send it to Powell for further instruction. So far, Panik is happy with the slightly altered swing.
"Just changing my load a little bit will allow me to stay on pitches better and hopefully drive the ball more," he said. "It's a little thing, but it's allowed my hands to have a better path to the ball."
Even in a down year, Panik's hands allowed him to lead the league in an important category. He struck out in just 7.7 percent of his at-bats, the lowest rate in the NL by more than two percent. But outside of a memorable season-opening series against the Dodgers, Panik didn't drive the ball. He slugged just .332, a career-low, and had one homer after the fifth game of the season.
The Giants flirted with replacements in the offseason, showing interest in DJ LeMahieu, Marwin Gonzalez and others near the top of a crowded second base market. Ultimately, they added Yangervis Solarte, a switch-hitter team officials think could easily get 300-400 at-bats moving all over the field. He may see plenty of time at second base.
The Giants could throw Panik into a timeshare, but they also hope he gets back to being the player he was in previous years. Panik is still just 28. He's as good a bet as any of the regulars to bounce back.
For now, he's just happy to be back.
"Fortunately, in this game, I got a second chance," he said. "I'm happy everything worked out. You just don't know in this game, but this is the only organization I've known, and I'm happy to be here."