The SI.com Debate Series will pit of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Beller and Gabriel Baumgaertner debate Anthony Rizzo and Cody Bellinger.
Michael Beller makes the case for Rizzo over Bellinger…
When I first pitched the Debate Series to Gabriel, we both jumped at the idea of making this the first entry. Why? Well, I’m a Cubs fan and he’s a Dodgers fan. Our teams have gone at it the last two Octobers, with both earning one trip to the World Series. It only made sense that our first debate would be related to that, especially with Rizzo and Bellinger such great foils for one another. I just feel a little bad for Gabriel. This debate is going to bring back troubling memories of October 2016 for him.
Why would I want Rizzo over Bellinger, you ask? Dear reader, I am a fan of track record and consistency. Sports are nearly impossible to predict, and individual player performance, which is at the core of fantasy leagues, is even harder. When you find someone you can trust to play at a high level, you latch onto him and don’t let go. I know what I’m getting out of Rizzo, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Rizzo made his first All-Star team in 2014. He ended up hitting .286/.386/.527 that season with 32 homers and 78 RBI. The next year, he made the All-Star team again. This time around, he slashed .278/.387/.512 with 31 homers and 101 RBI. That’s two nearly identical, high-level seasons.
The Cubs won the World Series in 2016. You probably heard about it. Rizzo was one of the best players in baseball that year, making his third straight All-Star team, finishing fourth in NL MVP voting, and winning his first Silver Slugger. He hit .292/.385/.544 with 32 jacks and 109 RBI. Just for the record, he went 8-for-25 with a pair of homers against the Dodgers in the NLCS that season. If you’re keeping score at home, you know that makes three straight eerily similar seasons for the Cubs first baseman, all of which placed him among the elite at his position.
Finally, we get to 2017. Rizzo had an uncharacteristically terrible May, in which he hit .194 with a .398 slugging percentage. That would have sunk a lesser player, but not Rizzo. He bounced back to hit .273/.392/.507 with, you guessed it, 32 roundtrippers and 109 RBI. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he still hit six homers and posted a .347 OBP in that awful May, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Rizzo last year became the 44th player in MLB history with four career seasons with at least 31 homers, a .385 OBP, .500 slugging percentage and 130 OPS+. You’ve likely heard of most of the other guys who have done it. You could say their names are iconic. Ruth. Mantle. Mays. Ted Williams. A-Rod. The Big Hurt. Musial. Griffey. Chipper. A-Rod. Bonds. Hank Aaron. Gehrig. DiMaggio. Just to name a few. And now, Rizzo. That’s good company, don’t you think?
Lest you think Rizzo is done learning new tricks, there was one difference in his 2017 campaign from the previous three years that made it even more special. Rizzo, a legitimate masher who’s 11th in the majors in homers over the last four seasons, walked more than he struck out. He has always had a discerning eye and been willing to take his walks, but he elevated that last year with a 13.2% walk rate, compared with a 13% strikeout rate. The only other qualified hitters with more strikeouts than walks last season were Joey Votto, Justin Turner, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. Again, Rizzo finds himself in good company.
Rizzo is entering his age-28 season. He’s going to hit in the middle of a lineup that is once again expected to score 800 runs. He’s one of a handful of players in the league for whom floors of .280/.390/.530, 30 homers, 100 RBI and 95 runs feel appropriate, and he’ll probably give you seven or eight steals on top of that. There is every reason to think he will be one of 32 players with five 31-homer, .385-OBP, .500-SLG, .130 OPS+ seasons in MLB history when 2018 is in the books. I’ve got nothing against Bellinger, but I like track record. I like consistency. Therefore, I love Rizzo.
Gabriel Baumgaertner makes the case for Bellinger over Rizzo…
I’ll be upfront about this. Arguing to select Cody Bellinger ahead of Anthony Rizzo is, well, ambitious is one way of putting it. Foolish is another, unless your team desperately needs power. Even if Bellinger lacks the track record of Rizzo, his potential is the highest of any of the first-base candidates.
Bellinger is definitely the upside pick in this debate; he burst onto the scene last year to hit 39 home runs en route to winning National League Rookie of the Year. He hit those 39 homers despite not making his big league debut until April 25th, displacing Adrian Gonzalez from his job at first base. There’s legitimate reason to believe that Bellinger will reach 40 homers this year, which would make him one of the most desirable first basemen in fantasy. The issue is that power is fairly cheap in this era, and Bellinger may not be worth such a high pick when you can find cheaper power in later rounds.
The difference with Bellinger, strangely, may be his speed. Much like Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona, Bellinger is one of the Dodgers’ fastest players. He stole 10 bases in 13 attempts in his rookie season, and he’s surrounded by one of the deepest lineups in baseball. He’ll be in position to create runs, will drive in a bunch and probably finish top five in the National League in runs.
We know how high Rizzo’s floor is. But with Bellinger, we don’t know how high the ceiling is. In that sense, he’s worth the risk.