The 2018-19 Cubs offseason was characterized by very limited spending, but this offseason may have an even tighter budget. In addition to budget overages and questions about Marquee Sports Network, a desire to avoid increased penalties and the loss of various rebates for exceeding the luxury tax threshold in consecutive years may be forcing the belt tightening.
Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic recently made clear ($) just how low the spending ceiling seems to be. Eric Sogard‘s $4.5 million contract was reportedly too big for the Cubs to take on, but Sharma indicated that even reliever Alex Claudio’s $1.75 million was out of their price range. The same was true of non-tendered Phillies infielder Cèsar Hernàndez.
But the Cubs still have a need for second base depth with the departures of Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell. Sharma notes that perhaps the only affordable option from outside the organization is Joe Panik, who split 2019 between the Giants and Mets and posted -0.2 WAR in 142 games. The 29-year-old is a lefty contact hitter who rarely strikes out, but he has only registered an OPS+ above 100 once the last four seasons and has posted wRC+ tallies of 77 and 76 in each of the past two seasons.
If Panik really is the only affordable external option, the Cubs have better options on the roster already. Nico Hoerner more than held his own in his September audition, putting up a .741 OPS that exceeded the .738 Panik had in his two months in New York. For what it’s worth, Panik had a .627 OPS with the Giants before being released.
Ian Happ finished 2019 on a strong note and has kept his second base glove ready despite the Cubs’ protestations since drafting him. His infield defense isn’t anything to write home about, but Panik has managed DRS marks of -11, -1, and -3 at second over the past three seasons. Happ is a more effective left-handed bat to balance out Hoerner.
Based on what Theo Epstein has said on the matter, the rookie does appear to have an edge on the starting gig. As such, it’s about finding out which option is best to either back him up or platoon with him.
“Second base is an area where we definitely are out there looking, but we have a number of good players on our roster who can play second,” Theo Epstein said during the Winter Meetings. “We’ve said that we’re not closing any doors on Nico (Hoerner). We’re open-minded.
“We’ll use spring training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him and the team. But you could see a combination of players fill that role for us, including the possibility of someone who’s not currently on the roster.”
One other factor working against the acquisition of Panik is the unfortunate reality that Daniel Descalso is still owed $3.5 million for the 2020 season. The switch-hitting infielder had a disastrous 2019 that featured an OPS+ of 37 as the result of a lingering ankle issue he unwisely tried to play through. Descalso’s numbers the last four seasons aren’t much different from Panik’s and the Cubs can’t very well afford to just eat his contract..
This new era of financial restrictions, whatever thoughts one has on their necessity or propriety, means even the smallest moves are risky. Panik’s production can easily be matched or exceeded by players who are already in the organization, so it’s hard to justify a deal of any sort. It may be time for fans to panic, but it isn’t time for the Cubs to Panik.