The shape of Theo Epstein's and Jed Hoyer's vision for the future of the Chicago Cubs revealed itself a little more Sunday night, with the news that the club has agreed on a lucrative contract extension with 23-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
The deal, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, is said to be for seven years and $41 million, but also includes a pair of subsequent club options that could lift its total value to $70 million (as well as escalator clauses that could add a further $3 million on to that).
In sum, Rizzo is now very likely to be in Chicago through 2019, and possibly through 2021. The Cubs now have committed to a young offensive nucleus that they hope will sustain them for the rest of the decade, a stretch that they imagine will involve the reversal of their recent fortunes, which have included three straight fifth-place finishes and a current record of 15-22. Last August, they signed 23-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract that also has a $16 million club option at its end.
The deal, for Rizzo, marks a significant milestone for a player whose developmental pathway has been somewhat unusual -- particularly for a 23-year-old deemed so talented that a team would want to lock him up for such a lengthy period of time after he has played just over a season's worth of Major League games, 172. In 2007, Rizzo was a sixth-round pick by the Red Sox out of Florida's Stoneman-Douglas High School, but was traded to the Padres in 2010 as part of a package that returned Adrian Gonzalez, and then on to the Cubs last January for hard-throwing starter Andrew Cashner. In 123 games with Chicago, though, Rizzo has hit .286/.348/.489, with 24 home runs and 76 RBI -- enough for the Cubs to decide that he won't soon be traded again.
Chicago bought out four all of Rizzo's potential arbitration years, plus his first year of potential free agency. The Cubs also took another step in solidifying the rebuilding plan that Epstein and Hoyer, the former Red Sox executives, were brought in to implement. Offensively, the plan will center on Castro and Rizzo, but those two foundational players will sometime in the next few years be joined by a trio of young hitters who each currently rank in the upper third of Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, and each of whom is currently in Single-A: the 20-year-old shortstop Javier Baez (No. 19); the 19-year-old outfielder Albert Almora (No. 33); and the 21-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 34), a Cuban defector.
Rizzo's signing is part of an ever-growing trend in which clubs have sought to lock in their young talent on deals that they hope will ultimately prove to be team-friendly. The standard-bearer was the six-year, $17.5 million contract Tampa Bay gave to Evan Longoria less than a week after he was first called up in April 2008. The Rays have been richly rewarded for their aggressive prescience, as Longoria has averaged 26 home runs and 91 RBI during his five full seasons, which have coincided with the Rays' rise from irrelevance -- and they will still have him at a bargain rate through 2017, when the six-year, $100 million extension he signed last November kicks in. Other similar, and seemingly similarly wise, investments have been made by the Pirates in Andrew McCutchen (signed for six years and $51.5 million last March), the Rockies in Carlos Gonzalez (seven years and $80 million in January 2011), the Nationals in Gio Gonzalez (five years and $42 million last January) and the Giants in Madison Bumgarner (five years and $35 million in April 2012), among others.
Such deals don't always work out. The Blue Jays seemed to have had a winner in April 2010, when they signed Adam Lind, who was coming off an age-25 2009 season in which he hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBI, to a four-year, $18 million extension. Subsequently, though, Lind hasn't had a season in which he has hit better than .255, nor one in which he's come within 198 points of his '09 OPS of .932. He is at the moment a part-time player for the struggling Jays, and it seems likely that none of the three once tantalizing club options Toronto has on him -- the first for next season -- will be exercised.
Still, such gambles seem to work out far more frequently than they do not. They make sense for the players, as they guarantee them extreme wealth and stability at a point in their careers in which little is guaranteed. And -- as this one likely will for the Cubs, as Rizzo is a player whose steep curve of improvement has shown no sign of faltering -- they make sense for the clubs, particularly those that are seeking to turn years of failure into a prolonged period of success.