In May of this past season, the Cubs signed 23 year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a 7-year/$41 million extension, despite having played roughly one full season in the majors to that point.
Seen as a foundational piece in the coming wave of Cubs prospects (Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Albert Almora, etc.), Rizzo is expected to be a middle of the order bat with significant power for years to come.
Despite his lack of major league playing time, one could see why the Cubs made a risky long term investment on Rizzo. Between two AAA seasons in 2011 and 2012, Rizzo batted an unheard of .336/.405/.670 (that’s a combined 1.075 OPS), with 49 HR.
He twice was a Baseball America top 50 prospect, and in six minor league seasons, he never once finished with an OPS below .800. At the point of signing his extension (May 13), Rizzo was batting .278/.348/.527 with 9 HR and 29 RBI in only 38 games.
At the time, it was seen by many as a smart, aggressive move by a rejuvenated front office. Many applauded the potential savings involved in paying Rizzo an AAV of $5.85 million, when through succeeding years of arbitration his cost could otherwise skyrocket beyond that figure (presuming he lived up to his pedigree).
However, much like fellow Cubs future-bearer Starlin Castro, the rest of 2013 wasn’t up to par with the beginning of the season. In 122 remaining games, Rizzo batted only .218/.316/.384 with 14 HR and 52 RBI. So which is the real Rizzo?
Is he the pedigreed prospect seen the past two seasons in AAA, and in flashes in the major league level? Is he just adjusting to stronger competition while still a relatively young player?
Or is he more of a low-batting average, spotty power kind of player like many of the Mariners prospects seem to be turning into? His inability to play any position other than first, and lack of speed also exaggerate any deficiencies with his bat. Is his seemingly bargain contract going to be haunting the Cubs in year five or six?
The real question is: What is the Rizzo’s true ceiling, and is he going to be able to reach it?
Anthony Rizzo is never going to win a batting title, or be a threat on the basepaths. In his best seasons, Rizzo should also prove to be an average/very-slightly-above average defensive first baseman.
However, given his early scouting reports, results in AAA and his performance in spots in the Bigs, if he can keep the strikeouts down, Rizzo could be an above-average clean-up hitter for the Cubs.
In fact, I’d feel confident predicting that down the road, he could have a season stat-line not terribly far off from his prior referenced April 1 – May 13 period (around .275/.350/.500, with 30+/100+ HR/RBI pace).
Obviously, a line like that would make any questions about his contract’s practicality moot.
He’s an imperfect player, but pretty good at several important things (power, first base defense, average) that could relatively easily come together for several seasons.
In the long run, I believe his brief Major League career to this point (less than two full seasons) will be viewed as a player who has been relatively young for his level (21-23) and in the process of developing.
Rizzo will make some moderate progress in 2014, with an outside chance of breaking out (4.0+ WAR). By 2015, expect Rizzo’s contract to become one of the best values in baseball as he enters his prime seasons of 25 and older.
Led by Rizzo, Castro, and the boatful of new prospects on their way to Chicago, the future looks bright for the Cubs. That’s an odd sentence to have to write.
Spencer Bingol is a Staff Writer for Pro Sports Extra.