Sunday night, news broke that the Chicago Cubs were signing their young first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, to a seven-year, $41 million deal (with options that take it up to around $68 million) over the weekend, and generally the reaction was an unalloyed spasm of genius-casting upon the heads of General Manager Jed Hoyer and Team President Theo Epstein, along with comparisons to the Evan Longoria deal with Tampa Bay. I think all that's going a bit too far. But I do think it's a nifty little deal that could save the Cubs a bit of money over the life of the contract due to the way salary arbitration works in MLB.
First things first: who is Anthony Rizzo as a baseball player? For one, he's a pure first baseman -- he came up playing the position instead of moving there in the mid-minors. There are some big names who were purely first basemen in the minors, like Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto, but their bats are on a different plane of existence from Rizzo's. Here's an excerpt from a Baseball America scouting report on Rizzo when he was still a prospect in the Padres system in 2012:
"He's not Gonzalez, but Rizzo isn't far away from succeeding him as the most dangerous hitter in San Diego's lineup. To do so, he'll have to make adjustments after big league pitchers were able to exploit the length and uppercut in his swing with quality fastballs up in the zone. … He still needs to improve his defensive consistency, however, after committing 30 errors in the last two seasons. He's a below-average runner, as expected for a player his size. … Once he does so, he could develop into a .270 hitter capable of producing 30 homers and a healthy amount of walks on an annual basis."
Most other scouting outlets had similar things to say about Rizzo. Obviously these are scouting reports, not the word of God, but generally they're a bit more reliable for evaluating a young player than fuddling with Baseball-Reference's split tool and noticing his OPS keeps going up, or comparing his raw WAR figure against other first basemen in baseball this year. Baseball America is, in general, optimistic about players' futures, within reason; they're probably not selling Rizzo short here. Here are the recent first base seasons of players who hit around .270 with 30 home runs and walked a little bit, for comparison: 2012 Corey Hart, 2012 Adam LaRoche, 2012 Garrett Jones, 2010 Ryan Howard. These were very useful first base seasons. They were also non-elite, with each player's OPS ranging somewhere from .840 to .870; good, but not great. That's been the book on Anthony Rizzo his entire minor league career: good upside, but not great. Has pop, won't hit .300, doesn't run well, can't play any position but first base.
So seven years, $41 million isn't some absurdly low-cost buyout like the one Evan Longoria took back in 2008 (an additional six years and $19 million). It's in fact right in line with what the scouts think Rizzo's upside is (Corey Hart), with one crucial difference: Corey Hart wasn't a Super Two player. Being a "Super Two" in baseball refers to a prospect meeting an arcane set of service time requirements during his first two years in the big leagues that, when all is said and done, make him eligible to go to arbitration four times instead of three -- consequently meaning four big raises instead of three, assuming he's producing.
That's the contract in a nutshell: a good value that saves money if Rizzo hits his scouting upside…and if Rizzo doesn't hit that upside, but instead turns back into that guy who struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in the minors with massive holes in his swing (we're only a couple weeks removed from manager Dave Sveum sending Rizzo a message through the media about his approach, remember; it's not like he's a complete player even now), then it's a bunch of money committed to a guy who they should've been able to non-tender in year four of the deal.
It's also worth mentioning that Rizzo is one of General Manager Jed Hoyer's guys -- Hoyer's traded for him twice now, first when he went to San Diego from Boston and then when he came to Chicago from San Diego. That's a pretty big statement about how highly the Cubs front office thinks of him, and it's safe to say that not only does Chicago think internally that Rizzo will hit his scouting upside, but that he'll blow right through that ceiling and become the next Adrian Gonzalez or Joey Votto or what have you. And if that's the case, then yes, this is a great contract -- but not many first basemen become Votto or Gonzalez, especially not without a much better contact tool than Anthony Rizzo showed in the minors. And if he doesn't become one of those guys, the Cubs' deal for him is at best a decent value and at worst a complete waste of money over the next decade.
For what it's worth, if I had to lay down money I'd put it on the former, but the only thing set in stone right now is Rizzo's contract. That's the cost of cost certainty.