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What's a Fair Contract for Anthony Rizzo?

Anthony Rizzo is no longer a member of the Chicago Cubs, a concept that a lot of Cubs fans are having trouble wrapping their heads around. As I watched Rizzo play for the Yankees this past weekend, I kept wondering what a contract this offseason for Tony might actually look like. You'll recall that the Cubs were rumored to have offered him a 5 year, $70 million contract extension before this season started which didn't move the needle at all. Was that fair? Will he get more? How do his declining stats and chronic back issues play into it? Let's dig in.

Let me get something out of the way before I get to the meat of this, however. I understand that many Cubs fans feel like the team should have given Rizzo a big contract out of loyalty. Or because he took a "team friendly" contract early in his career. I'd also venture that those same fans want the team to win again in the near future. "Loyalty" and "success" are concepts that often don't intersect in the sports world, and a team at a crossroads like the Cubs has to make some hard decisions about players that are hitting free agency. If you believe (and I do) that the team really is trying to set itself up for near-term success, then loyalty can only be a small consideration for contracts the team signs with its players.

The Giants are a good example of a team that let their desire to get back to a successful position override loyalty to a player. Madison Bumgarner arguably carried the entire team on his back to their World Series victory in 2014, yet the SF front office could see his deteriorating performance as he entered his age 30 season and knew it was time to move on. Rather than trade him, they let him walk in free agency after the 2019 season, but either way they didn't offer him an above-market deal out of "loyalty." His two years in Arizona have proven that was the right call, and the Giants are right now the best team in all of baseball.

Before we get into Rizzo's potential contract, let's look at what a few other first basemen in his age group have gotten in recent years either on free agent deals or extensions, and how those deals worked out for the clubs. In 2019, the Cardinals locked Paul Goldschmidt up for five more years on a 5/$130 million deal at the same age Rizzo is now, part of which was a $20 million signing bonus, for an average annual value (AAV) of $26 million on the team's payroll. When Goldschmidt came over from Arizona via trade, he had a career .297/.398/.532 slash line and a 145 OPS+, and his offensive production had been extremely consistent. He's fallen off since he signed that deal, posting a .276/.360/.475 slash line and 126 OPS+ with St. Louis since (although he's had a nice rebound season this year).

That bat speed, tho. Yikes.

And let's not even get into that Eric Hosmer deal in San Diego, okay? The Padres gave Hosmer 8 years, $144 million going into his age 28 season after he posted a career .284/.342/.439 line, 111 OPS+ and 4 Gold Gloves with the Royals, penciling out to $18 million AAV over the life of the contract. The Padres smartly front-loaded the actual money they're paying out to Hosmer, but his production has dropped to .264/.323/.416, 102 OPS+ since moving to the NL, and well, Gold Gloves weren't going to come nearly as easily with as many elite defensive 1B as there are in the senior circuit.

Now back to Anthony Rizzo. I was racking my brain trying to figure out the right comp for Rizz, because none of the names Cubs fans routinely lump him in with seemed to fit. Votto? Goldschmidt? Freeman? Sorry, folks. They've all had better career numbers than Rizzo, and the gap isn't small.

Rizzo's also much better than Hosmer, but no one's getting an 8 year deal like he did, and especially not a 31 year old with chronic back issues. So let's frame this a different way, shall we? If we think of 1B of a certain age (think: in their 30's like Rizzo), and change the metrics to wRC+, we might find a comp or two to Rizzo's career stats:

Oh, hey there at the top, Joey! <3

See there, just two slots below Rizzo? Yeah, that's Brandon Belt. He might not slug as much as our beloved 1B, but in the same number of years, their average career production looks pretty comparable, no? We have to remember that Belt plays his home games in the cavernous wasteland that is Oracle Park, and if you've been there, you know there's a reason the Giants haven't had a player hit 30+ home runs in a season since Barry Bonds did it in 2004. Production-wise, though, their very similar wRC+ tells us that the two players are similar offensive producers despite park differences.

It also gives a lot more juice to all of those Bonds PED allegations. I'm just saying.

After a history of nagging injuries (would chronic back issues compare to this?), the Giants bought Belt out of his last arbitration year before his age 29 season with what amounted to a 5-year, $72 million contract.

Oh wait... that sounds REALLY familiar. While I'm not exactly saying that's where Jed Hoyer got his baseline offer to Rizzo, it certainly wouldn't surprise me. Whether or not you think it's fair is a matter of opinion, of course, but is it where the market will be for Rizzo? It's very possible based on how comparable the two players are.

It's also very possible that the Cubs would have negotiated up from their offer. The problem is we'll never know, because Rizzo got offended by what was, in hindsight, probably a reasonable offer, took his case to the media, and cut off negotiations when the season started. If I sound a little miffed at this, it's because I am. All this year, we've seen teams extend players and Cubs fans complain on Twitter about the Cubs not being able to do the same with their stars. The big problem with Rizzo is that he forced the Cubs into either 1) meeting his demands before the season started, 2) waiting until he was a free agent to re-open negotiations while giving him a qualifying offer, or 3) trading him mid-season if the team was sucking and helping re-stock the farm.

I also get that some of you might be in the camp that thinks the offer was unfair because it would have been a "pay cut" for Rizzo. Rizzo's contract included two team option years at $16.5 million each, which the Cubs exercised the last two seasons. The 5/$70 million is theoretically a pay cut. However, the Cubs could have front-loaded the deal and added incentives for All Star appearances, Gold Gloves, MVP votes or other goodies that could have made the deal worth Rizzo's while. I also can't fault the Cubs for not wanting to pay a player more whose production has been declining during seasons where they've been giving him a raise.

And while Cubs fans like to yell, "BUT HE'S THE CAPTAIN!!!" I'm going to be the contrarian and say that Rizzo's intangibles have been worth about as much to the team as Yadier Molina's are to the Cardinals. I can't really identify how Rizzo's on or off field perceived leadership has helped the Cubs win more, kept the offense from falling apart, made people work harder or glued anything together. His community service is unparalleled, but this is also a man who refused COVID-19 vaccination, was seen arguing in the dugout with teammates earlier in the season, and "led" the team to several seasons of offensive collapses down the stretch. I realize that's a hot take, but I also don't want to start thinking like one of the BFIB, either.

Rizzo's situation is also much more complicated if the Braves don't re-sign Freddie Freeman and he hits the market. Freeman's a better offensive player, a solid defender, has an MVP to his credit, has a reputation as a fantastic clubhouse guy and teammate, is having a fantastic 2021 season, and other than a few seasons with fluky injuries, doesn't have any chronic issues that take him off the field. He also comes with little Charlie Freeman, and in my opinion, Charlie>>>>Kevin.


There's also the little matter of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and what that will do to free agency. Rizzo won't be strapped to a qualifying offer, which helps his cause, but teams will be trying to wait out CBA negotiations to see how they will impact free agent signings. It's a weird year to be out there floating around without a deal.

Ultimately, I can't see Rizzo getting more than 5 years from any team at his age and declining production. If he can squeeze out 5 and $80 million, front-loaded with some bonuses, I'll think that's a fair haul for him and that his agent can give himself a pat on the back. Anything more than that and I'll be more than a little surprised.


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