As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the fourth installment on the first basemen.
What is the current state of the Cubs at first base? Simple — Anthony Rizzo.
No other explanation needed.
End of article.
-30- (for your old school journalists out there)
But seriously: Theo Epstein said at the GM meetings last month the only position group the Cubs feel comfortable with at the moment was starting pitching. He was addressing the offense as one big group, but looking more minutely, first base obviously is not an area of need for this franchise.
In fact, it’s probably the most secure position for the Cubs through at least 2021 — the last team option on Rizzo’s current deal. However, it’s not quite as stable as it once was (more on that in a bit).
1. Anthony Rizzo
2. Let’s be honest, this isn’t needed
Even if Rizzo goes down to injury — like last April with his back issue — the Cubs have plenty of players to slide over and fill in the gap. Kris Bryant could obviously do it, opening up third base for Javy Baez or David Bote. Ben Zobrist could also shift over to first base.
Then there’s Baez (who has some experience over there), Victor Caratini (if he’s still on the big-league roster), Ian Happ (who started two games at first in 2018) and even Taylor Davis (who figures to spend the year in the minors, but is on the 40-man roster). Willson Contreras could slide over if the Cubs had a reliable option to put at catcher and in a pinch, I’m sure Kyle Schwarber or Bote could cover for Rizzo.
Of course, none of these options are Gold Glove-caliber defenders like Rizzo, but if the Cubs lose their emotional leader and face of the franchise for any extended period of time, they’ll be a lot more worried about missing his bat than his glove.
After homering in the first game of 2018, Rizzo got off to a horrible start — hitting .143 with a .250 on-base percentage and zero extra-base hits from March 30 through April 30. But once he put that back injury and slump in the rearview mirror, Rizzo emerged as the best hitter in the Cubs lineup (yes, even better than Baez) — slashing .303/.393/.512 (.905 OPS) from May 1 on, walking more than he struck out 66 vs. 65) and smashing 24 homers with 92 RBI.
That helped his overall numbers look pretty close to his career line, but it was the first time since 2013 that he failed to hit at least 31 homers.
Like many of the other hitters in the Cubs lineup, Rizzo will look to hit for more power in 2018, but he still has the best approach and consistency among any of the position players on the roster.
The only “next” moves the Cubs need to make at first base would be if they want to find a legitimate backup with plenty of experience at the position defensively. Rizzo led baseball in hit-by-pitches in both 2015 and 2017 and hsa been plunked at least 15 times for five straight seasons, 105 in all. Any one of those in a bad spot on his hand or elbow or foot and he could hit the DL for a potentially lengthy period of time.
Then there’s the back issue, as Rizzo has experienced back pain that has kept him out of the lineup for at least a couple games a year. He said the April 2018 injury was a bit different than normal, but still, he’s 29 years old and the back issues figure to increase over time as he ages.
Beyond that, the only “next” moves the Cubs need to make to address first base is simply picking up the $16.5 million options for 2020 and 2021, though those should be the easiest calls Epstein’s front office makes in each respective offseason.
The bottom line
Rizzo is the most reliable hitter in the Cubs lineup and if he can pick his power back up and avoid another month-long slump, he has a very good chance to improve upon his 2019 numbers.
At a time when the Cubs really want all their talented young hitters to take that next step and put it all together offensively, Rizzo serves as the perfect example with one of the best two-strike approaches in the league.
Depending on what else the Cubs are able to do this winter and how they augment the lineup, Joe Maddon and Co. may consider moving Rizzo up to the leadoff spot on a more regular basis. He’s obviously comfortable hitting there (.317/.409/.587 career slash line in 45 starts leading off), it would give the best hitter in the lineup the most at-bats and it would set the table for Bryant and Baez with the team’s top OBP guy hitting in front of them.