Any day now, but no later than Sunday evening, the Chicago Cubs have to decide on the options they hold for Jon Lester, Daniel Descalso, and Anthony Rizzo.
With all appropriate levels of love for Lester and Descalso, those are easy decisions, and each player will receive his buyout before heading to free agency.
And with all appropriate levels of love for Rizzo, the decision should also be very easy in the other direction. Yes, even in this environment.
Rizzo, 31, can be retained by the Cubs for 2021 at $16.5 million, or bought out for $2 million. So, effectively, the decision the Cubs have to make is: do we want to keep Anthony Rizzo on this team for $14.5 million. I’ll admit that when you see the Cardinals casting off Kolten Wong, a guy whose recent years of performance make him a three-ish WAR player, rather than pay a $11.5 million decision … well, it made me nervous about the Rizzo decision. But, after a night to sleep, it shouldn’t. I should be more confident.
But, as we discussed yesterday in the context of Kris Bryant’s tender decision, we just can’t be supremely confident about anything involving a large amount of money right now. It remains possible, albeit unlikely, that some teams like the Cubs are going to cut any and all salary they possibly can until they know what the 2021 season is going to look like. Maybe that means options get declined and non-tenders happen, and then once there’s a 2021 agreement in place, those guys get re-signed. But that’s a huge maybe stacked on top of a maybe, and I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the Cubs just picked up Rizzo’s option and dealt with the rest of the fallout after that.
Set aside for a moment the extra value that Rizzo’s presence brings to this organization – a value I would pretty easily contend is not zero. From a purely baseball performance standpoint, is it worth “signing” Rizzo to a one-year, $14.5 million deal in this environment? Hell yes it is!
Sure, Rizzo – like most of the Cubs – is coming off a very down 2020 season, hitting just .222/.342/.414 (103 wRC+). But maybe more than any other guy, you can be pretty confident that it was a small-sample, weird-season fluke: Rizzo has posted wRC+ between 125 and 155 for six straight years before that. Nothing in his peripherals last year looked especially scary, and his expected wOBA at Statcast was 18 points higher than his actual. The guy probably didn’t quite get going AND was probably pretty unlucky. I think we can flush 2020 pretty easily in terms of future projections when it comes to Rizzo.
He’s a year older come 2021, sure, and he dealt with back issues. You can’t completely ignore it. But even if you peg him to match his low offensive output of the previous six years, he still winds up a three-WAR player. I do very much expect the price tag per WAR this year to tank, but in a normal world, a guy like Rizzo on a one-year deal, where you’re PROJECTING a mere 3.0 WAR would be worth well over $20 million. And that doesn’t consider the far greater likelihood, given his track record, that he’s at 4.0+ WAR by season’s end.
That is to say, even if you chop a guy’s value in half for the current environment, Rizzo is still a good deal at $14.5 million. Does anyone really, truly think he doesn’t get at least that in free agency? Get outta here.
I’ll circle back to the blanket caveat one more time, just to be thorough: no one knows how deeply and desperately front offices will be commanded to cut salary this offseason. I cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that the Cubs front office will be mandated to cut anyone and everyone who isn’t guaranteed a 2021 contract already. In that hard-to-fathom-but-not-impossible world, then yes, Rizzo could see his option declined. Maybe I’m just naive to hope things aren’t going to be *THAT* bad across baseball.
So, we’ll find out between now and Sunday night where things stand. Your expectation should be that Rizzo’s option is picked up, and that’s that. I’ll keep talking myself into holding the line at that expectation …
In the meantime, I hope that there are actually extension talks happening. Unfortunately for Rizzo, the timing of the end of his initial contract is coinciding with a terrible time to be heading toward free agency. But we don’t get to choose the reality of our circumstances, we can only respond to them. Perhaps, then, there’s an opportunity here for a deal that guarantees Rizzo a nice chunk of cash over several years, but structures it in a way to help the Cubs out in 2021 and maybe even 2022. It’s not like you WANT to put a 34-plus-year-old Rizzo on the books at a huge rate several years from now, but if that’s what it takes to get an extension done in this moment for the guy who has become synonymous with the Cubs? Maybe there’s added value there that goes beyond the Xs and Os of baseball analytics.