Anthony Rizzo recently turned down a 5 year $70m extension with the Cubs, publicly inferring that he'd test the waters of free agency. It hurt to see. But today, I want to analyze some of the specifics of what an extension or free agency would look like for Anthony Rizzo.
Before I go to far, I want to reiterate that Rizzo is my favorite Cubs player OF ALL TIME. If I had a cubs mount Rushmore, it's Rizzo, Bryant, Sosa, and Hendricks. If I had to choose between the Cubs making the playoffs or having Rizzo on the team, I would likely choose Rizzo. I like him that much. He's super fun to watch, very consistent, funny, full of shockingly smart heads up plays, and does a ton for charity. I love Anthony Rizzo, and it hurts me to imagine him elsewhere.
That said, I'm also a bit of a businessman. I ran my own side-gig freelance business for years, and am a general manager of another small business that does an average of $1m per year revenue. As you may remember from my childhood, my obsession was MLB showdown and constructing the ultimate roster. I say this not to throw my weight around, but so you understand the context of I can be a numbers driven person.
I love the player, but I've also been very astute as to what the front office has to deal with. We hate to admit it, but baseball is a big business. If the Cubs throw Rizzo a blank check because of what he's done, that could jeopardize future operations for years and years. Today, I'm going to attempt to see both sides.
Rizzo's original extension was originally the 26th largest deal a first baseman has ever received (in overall contract value). In 2013, at the age of 23 he signed a 7 year $41 million dollar deal, with two team options that could make it a 9 year deal. When the Cubs activated those two options, it essentially bought out 4 full free agency years. At the time of signing, Rizzo barely had a full season at the MLB level, and was a fresh faced 23 year old. $41-$76 million is life changing money at that stage of the game. Rather than bet on himself and try to push through to free agency, he opted for the sure thing. And he made decent money. In terms of active deals today, Rizzo's deal is the 8th biggest in baseball.
What would Rizzo get on the free agent market?
There's talk he could get something similar to D.J. LeMahieu, who at age 32 just signed a 6 year $90 million dollar contract. Bleacher Nation speculated $110-$125 million.
$110-$125 million would place Rizzo as the 6th largest active deal for a first baseman. But deals like that are a rarity. Especially considering Rizzo's age.
Where would a new Rizzo deal rank among active players?
Here's a chart of the top 10 contracts that were given to player actively playing first base (no DH shifters like Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols). Certain contracts aren't for the original signed amount, but include option years that have been picked up. This is how Rizzo goes from an original contract worth $41m to $74m.
Judging from a first glance that chart, it's not hard to think that Rizzo deserves 5 years and $100-$130 million. That's a pay rate somewhere between Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Abreu. I want you to then pay close attention to the age these contracts were signed. Keep in mind that Anthony Rizzo is going to be 32 when he's looking for a deal in free agency. He would become the oldest player on the list, beating out Goldschmidt by a year. And Based off of Goldschmidt's performance thus far, he's not worth it.
In the past, teams would pay for what a player had done, and would wishfully think it would continue. Not anymore. Teams will not dish out big contracts to over the hill players, because more often than not, those contracts backfire. That was the implied trend, but I had to dig deeper to try and find out for myself.
I have a chart of the top 15 contracts handed out to first basemen. Some of these players would later shift to DH, but would sign the deal as a 1B. Also included are two prospective Rizzo deals: the 5/$70 contract the Cubs reportedly offered, as well as a 5/$100 potential Rizzo counter (that also assumes Rizzo would be worth 2.5 WAR per year).
Of those 15 deal, only 5 of those netted positive results. That's a 2/3rds chance your deal to a first baseman will underperform. The really painful number is that one third of those deals were major losses: Cabrera, Pujols, Fielder, Davis, and Howard. Only Freddy Freeman drastically outperformed his contract, and that's largely because he signed at age 24. Based off history, is it a wise gamble to sign a player to a deal that has a 33% chance of being a train wreck?
If that's not bad enough, here's the chart that kills. What if we take out all the 20 year olds and just factor in 30 year old first basemen who signed bigger deals? Just as the situation that the Cubs find themselves in with Rizzo.
Just twice, have players produced excess value. Howard, Cabrera and Pujols were totally not worth their megadeals. The last three guys were HOF caliber players, and even then, it is not like they were worth their larger contracts. Giambi basically broke even. Thome came out ahead. That's it. I read this chart and I see that basically, when considering the historical trends, there isn't much chance Rizzo is worth even a $100m/5 year contract.
Notes on the charts:
WAR pacing just takes the average WAR the player has been worth and assumed he maintains pace. It doesn't account properly for Miguel Cabrera being worth + WAR his first year, and how he's been negative since.
Value is based off the standard $8m per WAR teams typically pay for a free agent. IE a 3 win player typically gets $24 AAV. Obviously they hope for better, but that's what it typically comes out to.
Present value accounts for inflation. That helps you determine what Jim Thome would get if he was signing his 2003 contract in 2021 dollars.
Players playing in 2020 with reduced dollars/WAR aren't really accounted for. 2020 overall WAR counts in their totals and will hamper pacing/totals. Dollars weren't reduced for the 60 game pro-rated deal.
The two annual columns at the end show you essentially what teams would need to supplement poor performers by signing additional free agents to make up for the difference in what they hoped that player would be worth. Example: Albert Pujols makes $24 per year, and needs to be worth 3 WAR for that contract to be worth it. If he's only good for 1 WAR, then the team has to sign $16m worth of free agents to break even in terms of production
Likewise, the WAR/Contract and Value columns show how "worth it" a player has been over the course of their deal, factoring in WAR pace projections. Breaking even is fine. That means the player has been "worth it." The WAR totals show how much WAR is needed to make up for deficiencies or how much excess value a team has gotten. The Value column just assigns a $8m multiplier to the WAR to show you what a team would have to spend in FA to make up for it, or what they would "save."
Here's the full chart if those pictures are too rough on you:
There just haven't been a lot of teams that have thrown large deals at aging first baseman. In the last five years, there have been just 4 deals over $100m given to first basemen. Only one of those went to someone who was over 30 (Goldschmidt). I just don't see teams lining up to sign Rizzo for drastically more money than the Cubs "insulting" $70 million.
As much as I hate to admit it, if Rizzo's goal was to get a megadeal, he shouldn't have signed that team friendly extension. But he took the generational money at age 23. That way, if he hurt himself trying to rob a home run in spring training and derailed his career, he was still taken care of. Good on him.
What level of performance can we expect Rizzo to have?
Many fans were upset with the offer because Rizzo's been such a great player. He's been amazingly consistent. And he has been definitely underpaid. Despite being such a good player, I only pegged him out at 2.5 WAR average throughout his mid 30s. Part of that was it being a realistic number that he can achieve. But the other part of that is that he may even struggle to be a 2 win player as he gets older.
Now I can already hear it, Anthony Rizzo is better than 2.5 WAR per year. He's been a 5 win player since 2015. He's consistent. He's great. Yes, while that is true, he faces an uphill battle due to his age. Here's a chart of top 1B WAR since 2005 (after steroids).
In the last 16 years, only 3 first basemen have maintained an annual average of 3 WAR since hitting age 32, none of those guys have played a full 162 games in the five years from ages 32-37. I keep fixating on Rizzo being worth 2.5 WAR for the extent of a five year contract. That might be generous based of historical trends. If anyone can do it, it's Rizzo. But I just can't predict that level of success for someone.
Looking at Rizzo's WAR totals directly, he hasn't been a 5 win caliber player since 2016. The last three years, he's put up totals of 2.9, 4, and and adjusted 3.1 (1.1 in 58 games). he could technically be in decline already. For what it's worth, fangraphs has Rizzo projected for about 3 WAR this season.
What can we expect Rizzo to get on the free agent market?
To determine what the Cubs might need to offer Anthony Rizzo to keep him around, we have to try and figure out what Rizzo might get on the free agent market.
Based on the averages and figures I've already charted out, I'm not sure there's a bidding war for Rizzo that goes beyond $100 million. There may be a team willing to pay extra levels of money to make a splash. A team might look at it much like the Cubs looked at Jon Lester going into 2015. If he can be good for a few years and we can win, then it's worth whatever slide that might occur in the mid to late 30s.They might, but few teams have done such deals in the past.
We also have to consider who else might be available on the market. More supply equal less demand. 2022 will potentially feature Bryant, Story and Freeman as a top tier of free agents. There's also a solid secondary tier featuring Castellanos, Seager and Seager, Pollock, Correa, Baez, Pham, Soler, among others. First base isn't particularly stacked after Freeman, with Rizzo clearly being the second best guy. But there will be cheaper options like Belt, Moreland, and Shaw. Essentially, Rizzo will likely not be a top 10 hitter in that 2022 free agency.
In 2020, there was only 1 hitter who signed more than a 100 million dollar contract (Rendon). The top 6 was rounded out with Donaldson ($92), Grandal ($73), Castellanos ($64), and Moustakas ($64). Not a single other player signed for over $20 million. Considering that and everything that COVID has done to baseball, do we really think that teams are going to cough up lots of $100 million dollar contracts? I don't think so.
What do I think Rizzo gets? I think he comes back to the Cubs on a 5 year $75 million dollar deal. In the end, both sides need each other. I think he'll test free agency, but will find it just isn't as lush as it might've looked a few years ago.