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Rizzo's new deal looks fantastic for Cubs

Joe Robbins

Sunday, the big news out of Chicago -- yes, even bigger than the Southsiders' Chris Sale one-hitting the Angels -- was the Northsiders reportedly signing their young first baseman to a new super-long-term contract. From Monday's Chicago Tribune:

As they did with Starlin Castro a year ago, the Cubs have moved quickly to lock up first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a long-term contract, giving them a chance to build a team around him into the next decade.

Rizzo, 23, has agreed to a seven-year, $41 million contract that replaces his one-year deal for 2013 and includes two club options that could increase the value of the deal to $68 million for nine years, according to Cubs sources. There are escalator clauses bases on performance but not a no-trade clause.

Leaving aside the escalator clauses, the Cubs will ideally spend $68 million on Rizzo's Age 23 through 31 seasons. Nine whole seasons, at roughly $7.5 million per season. As it happens, these are most typically a great player's best nine seasons.

By way of comparison, Joey Votto's next contract kicks in next year, covering Votto's Age 30 through 39 seasons, at $22.5 million per season. Don't worry, I'll do the math for you: for a good long while, Votto's going to be making almost exactly three times as much as Rizzo.

Will Votto be three times the player as Rizzo?

I sure wouldn't bet on it.

Joey Votto's an outstanding hitter. He has led the National League in on-base percentage three years running, and he's stronger than a team of oxen. But he'll turn 30 in September, and over the next decade he's going to steadily become worse than he has been. I wish to God this weren't true, because life would be a lot more interesting if baseball players didn't age in a fairly predictable way. But they do.

Don't worry, my Rhineland friends; I'm not here to kill the Reds for Votto's deal. It's a lot of money for a long time, but the club knows more about future revenue than me. My point is that for some number of future years -- maybe it's three years, maybe it's ten (but probably not) -- both the Reds and the Cubs are going to feature one of the league's best first basemen, but the Cubs will be paying a lot less for that happy privilege.

There are a couple of reasons to think that Anthony Rizzo will not be a fantastic player for a number of years. When he was 21, the Red Sox traded him to the Padres. When he was 22, the Padres traded him to the Cubs. It's quite rare for a supremely talented hitter to be traded once before making his bones; it's rarer still for such a hitter to be traded twice, and might suggest that someone spotted something that concerned them.

The Red Sox? Well, they really wanted Adrian Gonzalez. Wanted him so badly that they traded Rizzo and a top pitching prospect to the Padres to get him. Well, that didn't work out so well.

The Padres? Well, they might have been put off by Rizzo's miserable performance as a rookie in 2011, when he batted .141 in 49 games. If so, you couldn't really blame the Padres; after all, among first basemen in history with at least 150 plate appearances, that .141 batting average is the lowest ever. And let's be honest: if the rest of the teams around the majors placed a high value on Rizzo, the Padres probably could have gotten more than Andrew Cashner when they traded him to the Cubs.

In fact, Baseball America had Rizzo as the game's 75th best prospect in 2011, and the 47th best in 2012 (to BA's credit, that latter ranking came after he'd batted .141 in the majors).

Rather than try to explain what happened to Rizzo during those 49 games with the Padres in 2012, let's instead look at his combined line a couple of partial Class AAA seasons (2011 and '12) ...

.336 / .405 / .670

In both seasons, Rizzo was among the younger players in the Pacific Coast League while rapping 104 extra-base hits in 163 games. Upon returning to the majors last season with the Cubs, he did well. This season, he has already hit nine home runs while maintaining his batting average.

To be sure, Rizzo's career statistics in the majors aren't outstanding, mostly because of those 49 games in 2011. Even his statistics as a Cub are merely good (for a first baseman). But again, there's every reason to think he'll get better, and if he gets better he'll be as good as Joey Votto in ... oh, another two or three years, at the outside.

Which, again, isn't to speak ill of Votto. But if you could have Joey Votto at $7.5 million per season, wouldn't you be pretty thrilled?

I'll bet the Chicago Cubs are pretty thrilled right now.