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Reportedly signed 1B-L Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year, $41 million contract with options for 2020 and 2021. [5/12]
Not so long ago, the minor leagues were stacked with Michelin star level first basemen, prospects with first-division ceilings and middle-of-the-order offensive prowess. The current crop of talent is more pedestrian, looking more like buffet fare than fine dining.
The same quote could have been repurposed to describe the state of first base at the major-league level last season. As Sam Miller observed in March, last year’s performance by first basemen was the weakest in recent memory. And the future looked equally bleak: this year’s Top 101 prospects list included only one first baseman, the Astros’ Jonathan Singleton. “Only a handful of prospects in the minors with 30+ HR potential,” Jason wrote. “It’s becoming harder to find.”
So that’s part of the context for the contract extension Rizzo signed with the Cubs: less power in the minors, and fewer impact first basemen. Fewer players, in other words, who could turn into Anthony Rizzo.
This weakness at first is probably fleeting, the low point in the path of a pendulum that will soon swing upward. (It’s worth noting that the league-wide TAv for first basemen is up nine points since last season, driven by unexpectedly hot starts by James Loney, Chris Davis, and Mark Reynolds.) But while we likely haven’t seen the last of slugging first basemen, Rizzo’s power is a relatively rare commodity right now. He’s hit 24 home runs in his first 523 plate appearances as a Cub, roughly a 30-homer pace over a full season. He's picked up that pace in 2013. And that’s in spite of his age (he’s still just 23) and the fact that Wrigley Field is one of the toughest places for a lefty to hit homers (14 of Rizzo’s have come on the road). It seems like a long time since Rizzo's premature promotion and early struggles with San Diego, when a "rival evaluator" spread rumors about his slider-speed bat. Rizzo has since laid those rumors to rest. This season, he's batting .429 and slugging .667 on fastballs 93 miles per over or over (with an average velo of 94.9).
The scarcer a desirable attribute is, the more teams are potentially willing to pay for it. Rizzo would have been a Super Two player after next season, eligible for arbitration four times before becoming a free agent after 2018, and his power numbers probably would have led to large paydays. This extension gives him a raise for 2013-14, buys out his arb years and his first free agency year, and tacks on two Rays-style options at $14.5 million each for 2020 and 2021. If the Cubs exercise both options, he’ll be 32 when he hits the open market for the first time, having earned $68 million from the extension (up to $73 million, actually, depending on some MVP escalators). That means this may end up being the biggest contract Rizzo signs, but it’s perfect timing for the Cubs, who get to benefit from his prime years and let someone else foot the bill for his decline phase. The deal doesn’t include a no-trade clause, although according to ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers, Rizzo could void the 2021 option if he’s traded “while meeting certain criteria.”
The closest comp for the contract is the five-year, $32 million extension Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt signed before this season. Rizzo received the bigger deal, but he’s also two years younger and had an extra arb year headed his way. And Rizzo’s contract looks even better compared to the one the Cardinals gave Allen Craig in March—five years and $31 million for an inferior defender who’s about to turn 29.
It’s been four weeks since Cubs manager Dale Sveum suggested that the roster spots of Rizzo and Starlin Castro weren’t safe if the players didn’t perform. Sveum’s veiled threat seemed like a strange motivation tactic, considering that Rizzo and Castro are both cornerstones of the next Cubs competitor. Since Sveum’s comments, Rizzo—who at the time had hit for good power but suffered some bad BABIP luck—has hit .351/.405/.571, though it would be a stretch to give Sveum any credit for his success. (Castro, who was hitting very well when Sveum spoke up, has hit .244/.271/.329 since.) Castro is under team control through 2020, so he and Rizzo will be expected to form the foundation of a contending Cubs team for the better part of a decade.
Ken Rosenthal reports that Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza might be next in line for extensions. To supplement their "veteran" talent, Chicago has plenty of prospects on the way up from the low minors, which boosted the organization to 12th in our annual rankings, up from 20th in 2012. The Cubs appear to be building a winner in a cost-effective way. Some Cubs fans hoped that the new regime would show them the money and sign Albert Pujols away from St. Louis after the 2011 season. Trading for and locking up Rizzo now looks like it was the far wiser course. Score another victory for building from within over winning with free agents.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer drafted Rizzo in 2007. Hoyer traded for him when he went to San Diego, then traded for him again when he reunited with Epstein in Chicago. Given how much trouble the two went to to acquire him, it’s not surprising that they acted quickly to keep him a Cub. “I believe in Anthony Rizzo,” Epstein said in February. “I would bet on this guy’s future.” This is that bet. It looks like a good one.