Every player on the Cubs’ roster should be considered a trade candidate. That much should be clear after their decision to ship Yu Darvish out of town with three years remaining on his contract. He’s far from the only high-profile veteran who could be on the chopping block: Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo are each entering their final years of team control, and Willson Contreras will be a free agent in two years.
We don’t know what will happen with any of those players in the immediate future, but it feels right to say most of them won’t be Cubs by 2022. Chicago seems willing to capitalize on Contreras’ multiple remaining years of control by dangling him in trade talks. Bryant and Báez could be moved in the coming months as well, but both are coming off dreadful seasons at the plate. Even if they aren’t traded, it’s difficult to envision them signing long-term contracts with the team: They’ll still be in their 20s when they finish this season, they play premium defensive positions, and the allure of their MVP-level past selves is likely to put their price higher than Chicago is willing to stomach.
In the case of Rizzo, though, I’m not sure I’d say the same. He will be 32 at season’s end, which means his next contract won’t be nearly as long as those of his teammates. He also plays the lowest non-DH position on the defensive spectrum (albeit very well, winning four Gold Gloves in the last five seasons) and probably doesn’t have the same ceiling that Bryant and Baez do. His price should be more manageable, giving the Cubs an opportunity to offer him an extension that would keep him in Chicago for the duration of his career.
Like Bryant and Báez, Rizzo underperformed at the plate in 2020, though he was merely average, not a disaster like the other two, hitting .222/.342/.414 for a 103 wRC+. His walk and strikeout rates stayed in line with his career averages, but his average plummeted thanks to an extraordinarily low BABIP, which dipped from a career rate of .289 all the way to .218. That explains why just 16 hitters in baseball experienced a larger gap between their expected batting average and their actual batting average, according to Baseball Savant.
Other shortcomings Rizzo had in 2020 are more difficult to explain. His ISO dropped from .227 in the previous season down to .192. Declining power for him is now a trend: While the dropoff in batting average and overall production in 2020 were quite sudden, his power output has been in steady decline for a few years.
There’s some evidence Rizzo may have actually tried fixing this last year, only to see it backfire. Throughout his career, he has been more likely to catch the top half of the ball than to swing underneath it. In 2020, the opposite was true.
It’s the kind of shift that could reveal a change in objective for Rizzo, who recorded his highest average launch angle since 2015. Getting under the ball more is a good way to generate a bit more power, but in this case, the extra flies he was hitting weren’t traveling very far: His overall fly-ball rate jumped just under six points, but the rate of infield pop-ups he hit nearly doubled.
Rizzo’s declining power numbers aren’t a result of him hitting the ball at the right angle; he’s just not hitting the ball hard. Three years ago, his average exit velocity was 90.1 mph; in 2020, it was 87.7. His hard hit percentage fell about six points in that same time frame. This drop in hard contact isn’t necessarily a death knell: If you look at Rizzo’s average exit velocity on fastballs in the strike zone, his 2020 figure was actually one of his best on record. It was against secondary stuff in the zone where his contact quality saw the major drop-off, an effect that was magnified by the fact that secondary stuff made up most of what he swung at.
Though Rizzo no longer appears to have the power he did when he tallied 30-plus homers for four consecutive seasons, his other skills have held up well. He’s still very difficult to strike out, making lots of contact and hitting a high rate of line drives, and has posted walk rates consistently above 10% for virtually his entire career. That should allow him to be an above-average hitter even without big power numbers, giving Chicago good reason to want to keep him around.
What would an extension look like? There are a couple of recent first base examples we can use as a guide. Paul Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $130-million extension with the Cardinals ahead of the 2019 season. José Abreu signed a three-year, $50-million extension with the White Sox before the 2020 season. Neither is a perfect match for Rizzo’s circumstances, but combining the two gives us an approximate middle ground.
Rizzo gets an unfair knock on the WAR side because of the shortened 2020 season, but even with a regular 162-game slate, he wasn’t going to approach the value Goldschmidt produced in his final three years in Arizona. He probably won’t get Goldschmidt’s contract, but he should get more than Abreu, who was two years older when he signed and is much worse defensively. Using just this rough comparison — and acknowledging that we still don’t know what large contracts will look like after the pandemic — something in the five-year, $80–100 million range for Rizzo feels right to me. It might not fit in with the Cubs’ overall philosophy of cutting costs, but if they see any value in letting fans see one of the stars of the 2016 championship team stick around for life, there are worse prices to pay.
If the Cubs don’t see a good enough reason — baseball, sentimental or otherwise — for keeping Rizzo around, the logical next step should be to trade him, because unlike Bryant and Báez, he doesn’t have much competition on the market in terms of available players at his position. Carlos Santana has already signed, and Josh Bell has already been traded. Bell comes with one more year of team control than Rizzo would, but the latter is probably the better player in 2021. In fact, our Depth Charts projections have Rizzo as the second-most valuable first baseman in the majors next year. If he becomes available, it’s hard to see a good reason for a team like the Angels or Red Sox not to put an offer down.
It was always going to be hard for the Cubs to keep all three of Bryant, Báez and Rizzo. Dumping all of them immediately after winning a division title, though, shouldn’t be the way this has to go. The team can still choose to hold onto one of those players and continue building around them. Considering Rizzo is the one who has been around the longest, would likely cost the least to retain, and is the team’s best-projected player next year, locking him in feels like a no-brainer.