WASHINGTON – While the Cubs tried to pretend Kris Bryant had a chance to make the team in spring training, a reporter brought up the service-time issue and mentioned to Anthony Rizzo that 2021 would line up with the final club option on his contract.
“I have no idea,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know where I’m at on that.”
Rizzo doesn’t like to overanalyze things while standing at his locker, usually declining to break down his game in detail and writing almost everything off as “just baseball.”
But Rizzo can also be very engaging and surprisingly unfiltered, whether it’s ripping management for the Wrigley Field renovation delays or predicting the Cubs will win the division this season.
When it came to the seven-year, $41 million contract extension Rizzo signed in May 2013, the All-Star first baseman didn’t look back.
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“No, not at all,” Rizzo said. “You know if I go out and play, that will take care of itself.”
Rizzo has gone out and dominated, elevating his game to a new level, joining the MVP race and finding different ways to beat you. Just fast forward to Friday morning and the end of a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals that began on a rainy Thursday night.
With two runners on and closer Hector Rondon struggling with his command in the ninth inning, Rizzo noticed Clint Robinson taking an aggressive secondary lead off first base and flashed a pick-off signal to catcher David Ross.
Ross called for a slider, popped up and turned to fire the ball to Rizzo, who had snuck over to first base and dropped the tag on Robinson. Anthony Rendon couldn’t be the hero at Nationals Park. Game over.
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“He’s a stud,” Ross said more than once, describing Rizzo as “one of the best young players in the game. He should be talked about with the best young players in the game.
“He’s a leader. He brings it every day. He doesn’t take an at-bat off. I honestly can’t sit here and say enough good things about him and what he brings to this team.
“He’s our three-hole hitter. He’s dangerous. He has the best two-strike approach I’ve seen in my career. He’s the heart and soul of this team.
“He wants to take this organization to the next level. And he’s doing it.”
The Cubs (28-24) have been years behind the Nationals (29-25) in their rebuild, but they also don’t have the same win-or-else urgency now.
Washington has a key leadoff guy/centerfielder (Denard Span) and an All-Star shortstop (Ian Desmond) positioned to become free agents. Frontline starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are also in their walk years, while Stephen Strasburg can hit the market after the 2016 season.
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The Cubs are building this around Rizzo, who’s making $5 million this season and next year, guaranteed $7 million in 2017 and 2018 and owed $11 million in 2019. The club options for 2020 and 2021 are worth $14.5 million apiece.
“We want to make sure we have that window of success,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Knowing ‘Rizz’ is going to be right there with the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells and the other guys we bring up is really important.”
That obviously looks like a team-friendly deal now with Rizzo getting on base around 44 percent of the time, ranking fourth in the majors with a 1.017 OPS, putting up more stolen bases (10) than home runs (nine) and keeping up his face-of-the-franchise image.
At the time, Rizzo’s camp wanted to beat the $32 million the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Paul Goldschmidt, who will stay there through 2018 if the club picks up a $14.5 million option.
Before the 2014 season started, the Atlanta Braves locked up another All-Star first baseman – Freddie Freeman – with an eight-year, $135 million extension.
You also have to remember that Rizzo is someone who beat cancer and got traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres to the North Side.
Of course, Rizzo said, those experiences will change your perspective. Knowing Cubs executives Hoyer, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod for years also added to the sense of security.
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“I’m happy where I’m at,” Rizzo said. “I’m just playing baseball now. I don’t have to worry about what people say here and there now. I just go out and play and have a good time.”
Don’t forget Rizzo bombed during his 49-game audition with the Padres in 2011, hitting .141 with one home run and 46 strikeouts. And only a few weeks before the Cubs announced the extension, their manager at the time – Dale Sveum – threatened to send Rizzo and Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.
“There are guys who want to go out every day and earn more money, whether it’s in free agency or in arbitration,” Hoyer said. “There are guys who (believe) comfort is really important. There are guys who – if you give them comfort – they back off the gas pedal.
“Anthony is very proud and he really likes to come out and play. He really loves to hit. I think the contract gave him the confidence that he’s going to be in Chicago for a long time. After two trades, he can just relax and play.
“He’s really taken off. He knows he’ll be here. He knows he’ll be a big part of what we’re doing.”
Rizzo keeps evolving, putting up more walks (30) than strikeouts (25). He’s hitting .429 against lefties. He’s crowding the plate and daring pitchers to hit him (which they’ve done 13 times already). He’s the steadiest defender on the 25-and-under infield (at least until he turns 26 in August).
The Plan means the National League will have to deal with Rizzo and Bryant from here until the end of the 2021 season. Good luck with that.