State of the Cubs: First base
Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.
Next up: First Baseman
- Anthony Rizzo
- Victor Caratini
- Kris Bryant
- David Bote
- Alfonso Rivas
Since he became the Cubs’ full-time first baseman in 2013, Anthony Rizzo has brought as much stability as he has success to the position.
With the shortened 2020 season aside, Rizzo has clubbed at least 20 home runs and 75 RBI in those seven seasons and has earned three Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove in 2016. The Cubs rank 5th in WAR (FanGraphs) at the first base position since 2013, accumulating a 30.1 WAR in that time. Rizzo ranks 4th among individual first basemen in WAR in that time.
Rizzo has a $16.5 million team option for the 2021 season, which is likely to be picked up. That guarantees that the first base position is safely locked up by the veteran Rizzo.
The Cubs and Rizzo will be hoping he has a bounce-back season offensively, as he mustered a .755 OPS this season, his lowest since 2013. He wasn’t satisfied with that or how the season ended. Rizzo wants to make sure the he and the Cubs can reach the levels they know they’re capable of.
“I know for a fact Mr. Ricketts wants to put a winning team on this field,” he said after the Cubs were eliminated by the Marlins in the NL wild-card round. “Our fans deserve better. The city deserves it. And we have a lot of guys in this clubhouse that have helped us win and can continue to help us win. So, I know Theo [Epstein] and everyone, top to bottom, will be putting the best product on the field and do what’s best for this organization.
Rizzo will still be in his prime at 31 when the Cubs kick off the season in Mesa, Ariz. and has the organization in an enviable position at first base.
The shortened season saw countless players across the league see their numbers dip, so it shouldn’t be too concerning to Cubs fans that Rizzo can’t bounce back over a full, 162-game season. After all, this is a player who spent the shutdown losing weight, entering summer camp 25 pounds lighter.
Bryant, Caratini, Bote, Jason Kipnis, Ian Happ, Hernán Pérez and Patrick Wisdom all spent time at first base at some point in 2020. Rizzo has been a workhorse at the position, appearing in at least 140 games each season from 2013 to 2019 and missing only 2 games in 2020.
Expect some combination of Bote, Caratini and/or Bryant to back him up in 2021 if Rizzo needs a day off sometime.
There’s no question, if Rizzo’s option is picked up, he’s the answer at first base in 2021. Rizzo and the Cubs could work on a potential extension that could see him stay with the Cubs long-term, too. If that’s the case, the first base position is locked up for a few years and even as Rizzo continues to age, if his bat continues at the level it’s been in his career, he can easily slot into the Cubs’ DH, provided the DH stays in the National League.
One prospect to keep an eye on at first base is Rivas, 24, who the Cubs acquired from Oakland in January for Tony Kemp. The Cubs liked Rivas when he was in college in Arizona, but the A’s beat the Cubs to him in the 4th round of the 2018 draft. Scouts like his swing and he has a career .390 OBP in the minor leagues. He spent 2018 and most of 2019 in Short-A ball and Advanced-A ball. The A’s promoted Rivas to Triple-A at the end of 2019 and he showed his prowess in his 8 games there, slashing .406/.441/.625 in his short stint in Las Vegas.
The issue with Rivas, and many other minor leaguers across baseball, is the lost 2020 minor league season and the chance to develop.
“Obviously it was a challenging year in player development not having a minor league season,” Epstein said in his end-of-season press conference. “We’re excited about the progress that a lot of our prospects made under the circumstances, but we also recognize that there’s no way to quantify the consequences of not having a minor league season throughout the organization and throughout the industry.
“Obviously, the world didn’t get to see the progress that was made in certain areas. I’m excited about what that might look like in 2021.”
The Cubs should feel confident in a rebound season for Rizzo offensively and his leadership, skillset and intangibles will be crucial for the Cubs in 2021. Couple that with his stability and the Cubs can cross one worry off their checklist. Well, once they pick up that team option.