It’s surprisingly difficult to begin a conversation about the Cubs MAYBE going after free agent first baseman Anthony Rizzo when the lockout ends, despite their plausible need at the position and the obvious longtime connection between them. Wherever you might land on the topic as a fan, it seems worth discussing from a baseball perspective.
The former Cub spent 9.5 seasons in Chicago, caught the final out of the 2016 World Series, and was the de facto captain of the team before being traded last July. He was also offered an extension before the 2021 season, which would’ve been his second with the team, reportedly at five years and $70 million. And that’s only about 10% of the relevant history. There’s just a lot that precedes any conversation about Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs, and 2022 and beyond.
Back to the extension talks. At the time, the overall value of the Cubs offer felt light to many, especially given that Rizzo’s only bad offensive season to that point was the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (101 wRC+), and the fact that he was still a Gold Glove first baseman who had already signed one very team-friendly extension with the Cubs earlier in his career. But if Jed Hoyer and Co. were hoping Rizzo would give them a reason to improve their offer before trade season began, he didn’t quite do enough, even if there was some improvement at the plate: 112 wRC+ in 2021 (plus, the reoccurring back issues didn’t help).
(NOTE: 110 wRC+ was league average for first basemen in 2021.)
Now, Rizzo is tangled in a web of rumors, hanging at the mercy of decisions by Freddie Freeman, the A’s/Matt Olson, the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees, a surprise team like the Miami Marlins, or maybe also the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays. If you haven’t been following along this offseason, here’s the short-version of the key points on the first base market this winter:
• Freddie Freeman is reportedly seeking a deal in the six-year, $180 million range ($30M AAV). While the Braves, by contrast, are reportedly trying to get him in the door at something closer to five years and $135M, which is $3M less per year *and* for one fewer year overall. Freeman’s market seems to start with the Braves and Yankees (though even those rumors have begun to soften), with the Dodgers and Blue Jays waiting opportunistically in the wings.
• The A’s are trying to shed some salary and recoup prospects by trading first baseman Matt Olson ahead of his final two years of team control via arbitration (projected for $12M this season and probably something $15-16M in 2023). The Yankees, Braves, and Dodgers are most often mentioned, but the Blue Jays are thrown into the conversation every now and then.
That gives Rizzo some very tough competition after a just slightly-better-than-average offensive season for a first baseman in 2021. And his options could narrow quickly if the pieces don’t fall in the best possible way (which I think would be Freddie Freeman re-signing with the Braves, leaving everyone else to fight between Rizzo and Olson, one of whom, Rizzo, costs only money).
With that said, both Freeman (143 OPS+) and Olson (145 OPS+) project a lot better that Rizzo does next season according to ZiPS (123 OPS+), but the bat is still there and I don’t think there’s any reason to believe his above-average glove will fall off anytime soon.
(NOTE: Historically speaking, you should expect 2022 to be Rizzo’s best remaining season, with his performance trending down thereafter (like all players as they approach their mid-30s).)
Now, no one is arguing that Rizzo should get a deal anywhere near Freeman, so that’s largely besides the point. Instead, I want to focus on what it might actually take to get Rizzo and whether or not that’ll make sense for the Cubs in 2022 and beyond.
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Cubs offer last spring came with 4 years and $60 million in new money/years (i.e., starting in 2022). And although Rizzo did reject that deal at the time, it feels fair to guess that the overall length and total dollars would now be acceptable after a slightly down season in 2021 (112 wRC+).
But will an offer of that level be there again this offseason? From the Cubs or any other team?
At a superficial level, it’s easy to look at the Paul Goldschmidt deal ($130M) and the expected price tag for Freeman ($135-$180M), and think that Rizzo at 4/$60M looks like a steal, warts and all. Then again, at least some of the Cubs offer last year probably came with a goodwill bonus of being Anthony Rizzo – as in, he arguably had more value to the Cubs than to any other team. And outside of the top-end of first-base free-agent history, most players at his age and position aren’t scoring big-money, long-term deals. Perhaps, if Rizzo’s performance in 2021 was as strong as any of his pre-2020 campaigns, this would be an entirely different conversation, but at his age, with his trajectory, there is at least some reason to recalibrate our expectations for his next contract.
Then again, on the flip side, when you dig into the data, Rizzo’s offensive performance in 2021 wasn’t nearly as mediocre as it may seem at first glance.
On the surface, all of the typical Rizzo hallmarks were there. He had a solid walk rate (9.0%) and an excellent strikeout rate (15.1%). Meanwhile, his .258 BABIP was tied for the second-lowest of his career and his .356 expected wOBA well outpaced his actual mark (.339 wOBA), which was still above-average, even for a first baseman.
On top of that, in 2021, Rizzo carried the highest hard% of his big league career (41.1%) and maintained a solid launch angle (14.8 degrees). All of which, I’m sure, is why ZiPS believes he’ll bounce back with the bat in 2022, basically projecting him to be the 2018 version of himself again, which was worth roughly 3.0 WAR. Rizzo has also taken the offseason to tweak his swing and make some fundamental changes geared towards elevating the ball and hitting it harder to address the downswing in BABIP over the last two seasons, but we won’t know the impact of those changes for a while.
So will the market actually bear out a deal at $15M per year over four years? Eh. Without some ideal market circumstances, I’m guessing probably not. But based on the underlying performance and overall history, that’s not to say he’d be far off in that range. And for the Cubs, specifically, I certainly see some logic to re-engaging when the lockout ends at some level.
Here are some of the factors we, Cubs fans, should consider when entertaining the idea of the Cubs re-signing Anthony Rizzo this offseason.
• Frank Schwindel: Yes, Schwindel became a cult favorite in his short stint with the Cubs last season, but we just discussed that he was one of the “luckiest” hitters of 2021 in terms of the difference between his actual and expected wOBA. There’s also the significant disparity between Schwindel’s glove at first base and Rizzo’s. For a pitching staff whose success will live and die on infield defense, there’s no doubt in my mind that Rizzo is a much safer bet to help the Cubs win in 2022. Also, first base is a spot where the Cubs could add a bat and have a guy like Schwindel simply see more time at DH.
• The Cubs short-term plans: Maybe going after Rizzo didn’t make as much sense at the outset of the offseason, but after adding Wade Miley, Marcus Stroman, and Yan Gomes, I think trying to contend in the early part of 2022 is – at least – part of the hope. And getting Rizzo back would help. That said, the Cubs have a looooong way to go according to the latest projections, so the addition of Rizzo would likely have to come alongside some other significant additions to make a big enough impact. He would also have to be okay with the possibility of being traded – again – at some point over the next couple years if things didn’t work out.
• Rizzo’s back: By now, there’s no avoiding the reality that Anthony Rizzo will deal with at least some flareups throughout the course of the season, but he still played in 141 games last year and 58 of 60 games in 2020. In fact, he hasn’t played in fewer than 140 games in any full season. It’s a factor, but it’s also manageable, at least in terms of playing time.
• Designated Hitter: The DH is coming to the National League this year, which might also help the Cubs manage Rizzo’s back better throughout the course of the season. And since the Cubs do not figure to sign a dedicated DH this winter, there could be plenty of opportunities available at the position. As of now, it figures to be some sort of rotation between Willson Contreras, Nick Madrigal, and whoever’s on the bench (Schwindel? Frazier? etc.).
• Lefty Bat/Power: On top of improving the infield defense, the Cubs are still in need of some left-handed power in their lineup next season. Rizzo may not be the slugger he once was, but he would add a different look to the lineup that could help elevate the overall offense more than his individual contributions.
So where do we land with all that in mind?
Well, it’s been less than a year since the Cubs made that offer including 4 years and $60M of new money, but obviously things have changed — for the Cubs, for Rizzo, and for the market. Not all in his favor. And given the way the Cubs have seemingly structured their free agent offers this season, I doubt they’ll be willing to go four years in total length – whether he deserves that or not. But I don’t see the average annual value being a problem. In fact, freely available short-term dollars is the one area in which the Cubs may hold an advantage over any potential Rizzo suitors this offseason.
So could something in the three-year, $45-$48M range now make sense? On the low end, Rizzo still gets his desired AAV, albeit on a shorter deal, and on the high-end he gets $1M more per year on average. Or, thinking about it differently, Andy Martino (SNY) is already floating the idea of the Yankees pursuing Rizzo on a deal as short as two years. What would it take to get something done on a deal of that length? I don’t know offhand, but certainly that’s where the Cubs could conceivably come over the top, right? They are extremely flexible in short-term dollars, especially for a player who fills multiple immediate needs (high quality first base defense, lefty power, low strikeout rate).
And, again, if he’s at least open to the possibility of being traded again, it makes it all a little easier to give him more money in the short term than maybe any other team out there, especially those who’ll be so much closer to the luxury tax threshold (wherever it may land). It’s weird to think about Anthony Rizzo as a possible signing that winds up flipped at a future deadline, but that’s the back-up-plan spot the Cubs are in right now. And, well, they’ve traded him once before …
In the end, there’s still so much to be ironed out – from the CBA to deals for Freeman and Olson – before we can make a more educated guess on where this ends up. But I just have a hard time believing Rizzo’s next team will be disappointed by his production over the next few years, whether that’s in a reunion with the Cubs or some new club.