Position by Position: First Base

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

(Sports Illustrated)

We all remember the moment Anthony Rizzo caught a throw from the falling Bryant and squeezed his glove, securing the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years. We all remember when Rizzo slipped the now famous baseball into his back pocket and ran towards Bryant, where the two embraced on the mound as the rest of the field and the visitors dugout rushed them. We all remember when Rizzo threw up his arms and the world knew that the Cubs had finally done it.

It’s fitting then, that the man who caught the final out of the World Series was the beginning of it all. Though not the longest tenured Cub (that honor belongs to Travis Wood) Rizzo was the beginning of the grand Theo Epstein plan. After signing with the Cubs in 2011, Epstein hired Padres GM Jed Hoyer to be the general manager in Chicago. Previously a member of the Red Sox organization, Rizzo was traded to the Padres in 2010, and in 2012 the Cubs acquired Rizzo and a minor leaguer from the Padres for Andrew Cashner and another minor leaguer. The Cubs, like always, got the better of the deal.

Rizzo quickly became the number one first base prospect in the game, and has been a perennial All-Star contender since. He has participated in three consecutive All-Star games and got his first start at 1B for the National League this year. Combined between Triple-A and the majors in 2012, Rizzo played  in 157 games. In 2013 he played in 160. In 2015 he played 160 games again, and in 2016 he played in 155 games, making him a reliable bat in the middle of the order. Rizzo had a career  year in 2016, slashing .292/.385/.544 while driving in 109 RBI and swatting 32 homers. While the batting average might not be entirely impressive, he has a knack for getting on base (.362 lifetime OBP) and has averaged over 29 home runs over the past four seasons. In the last two years, Rizzo has seen his BB% remain fairly constant (11% over the last two years) while decreasing his K% (16% last year, down from 18.8 in 2014.)

rizzo-spray-chart
Rizzo’s spray chart is a thing of beauty (Baseball Savant)

He’s done all of this offensively while also playing excellent defense. In 2016, Rizzo logged 1337 innings in the field and had 11 DRS, the most by a first baseman in the majors. According to FanGraph’s overall defensive metric, Rizzo had -5.8 Def, which put him 3rd among qualified first basemen. He also did much better this year according to Inside Edge Fielding, improving  in every category except Likely plays.

 

rizzo inside edge.PNG
Rizzo continues to put up impressive Inside Edge Fielding metrics. (FanGraphs)

So what can Cubs fans expect from Rizzo in 2017? Will they get the 2013 Rizzo, who despite playing 160 games that year put up only a meager .233 AVG and was worth only 1.9 fWAR? Of course, 2013 was only Rizzo’s second season in the major leagues, and has since improved drastically, averaging over 5.45 fWAR the past three seasons. Depth Charts has Rizzo at 4.7 fWAR next year, and Steamer has him a little lower at 4.5 fWAR.

****

I’d be more inclined to believe that Rizzo is worth about five wins next season, maybe even more. For the past couple of years, he has played steady defense at first, perhaps even improved a little if his highlight reel catches have anything to say about it. Not only that, but he has continued to produce at the plate (145 wRC+ the past two years, 155 in 2014) and has even started decreasing his K% and increasing his BB% since he first came to the majors. With the now healthy Kyle Schwarber batting ahead of him, as well as Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist, Rizzo will have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs like he did last year, and he will continue to be a key part of the Cubs offense in 2017.

Rizzo is a crucial part of the middle of the Cubs’ batting order, but they lack depth behind the young first baseman. While Bryant can play first, he is much more effective in his natural third base position, and none of the Cubs Top 30 Prospects play first, so reinforcements through the farm-system seem unlikely. While Rizzo has played an extraordinary amount of games over the last five seasons, issues could arise if they need a long-term replacement for him. Forcing Bryant out of his natural position could have negative consequences on his offensive performance, and Rizzo’s patience would be sorely missed in the middle of the order.

That being said, if anyone can figure out a way to replace Rizzo, it would be Joe Maddon.

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