One of the best moves the Chicago Cubs’ front office made during their most recent rebuilding efforts came in January of 2012. It was on the sixth day of that month that Theo Epstein and company swung a trade for future franchise cornerstone Anthony Rizzo.
At the time of the deal, Cubs fans everywhere were uneasy over the prospect of trading Andrew Cashner, a talented young pitcher, to the San Diego Padres for a left-handed slugger who hit .141 in a handful of games in 2011.
More than seven years after the trade and it has become crystal clear that Rizzo will go down as one of the best first baseman to every pull on the home pinstripes.
Etching His Name Into the Record Books
Small sample sizes can be a crazy thing. As mentioned above, Rizzo started his major league career slashing .141/.281/.242, displaying very little of the power that would make him a cornerstone for the Cubs just years later.
At 22 years old, Rizzo began to run into his power-stroke. Listed at 6-3, 240 pounds with a silky smooth swing from the left side of the plate, Rizzo’s scouting reports often touted his 30-plus home run potential. In 2012, Cubs fans received their first taste of Rizzo’s power. Across 87 games, Rizzo slashed .285/.342/.463 with 15 doubles and 15 home runs, becoming, for the first time in his career, an above average major league hitter.
While Rizzo’s slash line numbers subsided in 2013, everyone finally got a chance to see what the youngster could do over a full season. Despite a .233 batting average, the lefty produced 23 home runs, 40 doubles and a .419 slugging percentage. Obviously, the Cubs’ brass liked what they saw from Rizzo, even in the early parts of the season, buying out his arbitration years with a seven-year, $41 million deal that would make the first baseman a Cub through at least 2019 (team options for 2020 and 2021).
That contract, while team friendly, allowed Rizzo to focus not so much on the state of his contract status year in and year out, but rather the game at hand for a Cubs’ franchise desperately looking for a World Series title.
As the ink dried on Rizzo’s contract, the left-handed slugger rewarded his employer with three straight All-Star-caliber seasons from 2014 to 2016. In those years, Rizzo finished tenth, fourth and fourth in the National League MVP voting, winning a Gold Glove for his outstanding defense at first and a Silver Slugger award in 2016.
Over that three-year stretch and even into the 2017 season, Rizzo has lived up to the confidence bestowed in him when the Cubs offered him a long-term extension. In 612 games from 2014 to 2017, Rizzo was perhaps the most consistent power-hitter in the game of baseball. He clubbed 32, 31, 32 and 32 home runs in those seasons respectively, averaging 99 RBI per campaign while slashing .282/.387/.522 with an OPS-plus of 143.
Looking at the numbers of the best first baseman/shortstop to ever play for the Cubs, Mr. Cub Ernie Banks, there can be some comparisons drawn. Early in his career, Banks patrolled shortstop before moving to first base in 1961 and 1962. That move came after Banks ripped off a run of eight straight All-Star Game selections that started in 1955 and ran through 1962. That same stretch included two MVP awards and two straight seasons of leading the league in intentional base-on-balls in 1959 and 1960.
Getting into the numbers, Banks and Rizzo were almost the same player during the best stretches of their careers. In 1,206 games from ’55 to ’62, Banks averaged 39 home runs and 110 RBI, numbers not that different from Rizzo’s. To go along with that, Banks slashed .289/.351/.561 for an OPS two points higher than that of Rizzo’s .910 mark from 2014 to 2017.
While these numbers may be like comparing apples to oranges in respect to the length of Bank’s run versus the still-in-progress nature of Rizzo’s run, it’s still fun to compare two players who could go down in history as the two best Cubs to play for the franchise.
As stated prior, Banks played much of his career as a shortstop before moving to first base. Despite that, the Hall-of-Famer actually played more innings at first base (10,792.2) than shortstop (9,953). For that reason, Banks will be remembered in the Cubs’ record books as a first baseman, giving Rizzo a steep hill to climb in many categories.
That hill, however, continues to grow smaller everyday. With his 180th career home run as a Cub on Sunday night, Rizzo moved into second place all by himself on the Cubs’ All-Time home run list by first baseman. The man he chases? Ernie Banks of course, who clubbed 512 home runs over his 19-year career.
As for Rizzo’s rank on the All-Time list including every position, he ranks 12th, just 18 home runs shy of ninth, a number that may not be out of the question in 2018.
Back to Rizzo’s ranks among Cubs’ first baseman. While not in the top-five in many categories, Rizzo is within striking distance of that area. Let’s start with hits. Rizzo is currently sitting in ninth with 971 hits. In his five full seasons with the Cubs (playing at least 140 games), Rizzo has averaged 164 hits per 162 games. That mean’s Rizzo would need a little less than three seasons at that current pace to break into the top-five in that category.
As for RBI, one of the best marks in judging the success of a first baseman, Rizzo sits in sixth with 594 runs batted in. To break into the top-four first baseman in that category, Rizzo would need 303 more RBI, once again meaning the slugger would need around three more seasons of production at his current pace to reach that goal.
Rizzo Could Go Down as One of the Best First Basemen in Cubs’ History
A quick check shows us Rizzo is in the top-ten in many other categories among Cubs’ first baseman. That includes doubles, OBP, slugging and OPS. For that reason, it is not unreasonable to believe Anthony Rizzo could come close, if not become, the leader in some of those categories, cementing his legacy on the North Side as one of the best to ever hold down the position.
Under club control for three and a half more seasons and just now really entering his prime, Rizzo’s best days could be ahead of him. While that’s good news for the Cubs, it’s not so good news for his opponents and the men ahead of Rizzo on some of these lists.
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