In mid-May, every major league team is supposed to believe it’s still a playoff contender, but realistically, the Chicago Cubs are playing for the future rather than the present. Given that harsh reality, the Cubs’ admittedly welcome victories over Washington and Colorado pale in comparison to the importance of Sunday’s off-the-field accomplishments.
As reported by Fox Sports, the Cubs locked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo through at least 2019 with a massive contract extension. Factoring in various incentives and a pair of team-option years, the deal could be worth as much as $73 million.
Considering that Rizzo had been making less than $500,000 for the 2013 season—a bargain-basement figure that’s now increased as part of the extension—the new contract represents a titanic commitment to a player who's appeared in just over one season's worth of major league games. It also shows that Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office understand what they’re up against in trying to turn the Cubs into winners.
Rizzo is already the second-best hitter on the roster behind All-Star Starlin Castro. If the 23-year-old first sacker develops as hoped, he’ll be a very good starter (at worst) to a perennial All-Star (at best), and either outcome would be welcome on a Cub roster with few bona fide offensive weapons.
The price for keeping Rizzo in town is obviously steep, but in the no-salary-cap world of major league baseball, it could turn out to be a steal. Between looming arbitration and the prospect of the youngster becoming a free agent in his prime (say, 2017, when he’ll be 27), the Cubs would almost certainly have spent more in the long term to keep Rizzo in a Chicago uniform for the same number of years.
Chicago’s penchant for short-term contracts and maintaining financial flexibility in the Epstein regime has all been in the service of making sure the team can build around the right players when it finds them. Rizzo, who’s gone from an early-season slump to an .891 OPS this year (including nine home runs through 37 games), is as safe a pick for one of those “right players” as he could possibly be.
Rizzo and Castro will need plenty of help to turn the Cubs into contenders. However, Chicago’s chances of finding and acquiring that help are a lot better with Rizzo in town than if the team had to worry about replacing their young star-in-the-making in a few seasons' time.
By the time Rizzo plays in his first All-Star game—hopefully one that doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as predecessor Bryan LaHair’s—$73 million could be well below his market value. Whatever money the Cubs saved this weekend will then be available to put a viable team around Rizzo and Castro, and that’s the best news Chicago fans can hope for in 2013.