Anthony Rizzo Heads Back to the Bronx
While Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo both officially rejected their qualifying offers on Tuesday, the Yankees retained the latter nonetheless. The team agreed to terms with the 33-year-old first baseman — New York’s second-best hitter this season, after the big guy — on a two-year, $40 million contract that contains a club option for a third year.
This is the second offseason in a row in which Rizzo and the Yankees have agreed upon a two-year deal, but the bells and whistles have changed. Acquired in a 2021 deadline trade with the Cubs, he re-signed with the Yankees once the lockout ended in March via a two-year, $32 million deal that guaranteed him $16 million each year and contained an opt-out after 2022, which he exercised following a very solid performance. This time around, he’s guaranteed $40 million, via $17 million salaries for this year and next plus a $6 million buyout on a $17 million club option for 2025.
Though Rizzo would have gotten a raise by merely accepting the $19.65 million qualifying offer, it didn’t hurt his cause that earlier this week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Astros had identified him as their top target at first base. Yuli Gurriel has manned the spot for Houston for the past three years but is now a 38-year-old free agent coming off a sub-replacement level season (85 wRC+, -0.9 WAR). The thought of the world champions upgrading by taking a piece from the team they swept out of the ALCS probably didn’t sit well in the Bronx, particularly given a market where the top remaining alternative would have been 36-year-old righty José Abreu, a less optimal fit for the Yankees’ lineup. More on that below.
Rizzo is coming off his strongest offensive season since 2019, having batted .224/.338/.480 for a 132 wRC+, the last of which represents a 19-point improvement upon his 2021 showing and is three points above his career mark. He fared even better than that for much of the season, hitting .227/.347/.511 (143 wRC+) through August 3 before being sidelined for a week by back spasms. He managed just a .214/.308/.385 (100 wRC+) line the rest of the way, missing another another 17 days in September due to further back woes that required an epidural injection.
Rizzo’s late-season slump and absences were ill-timed given that so many other Yankees besides Judge scuffled as well, with several missing time due to injuries. Even so, he placed second to Judge in wRC+ among the team’s regulars and was one of New York’s few consistent hitters in the postseason, batting .276/.432/.552 with two homers and a team-high eight RBI.
Through his ups and downs, Rizzo gave the Yankees something that they had been sorely missing in recent years: a left-handed power bat. His 32 homers, which matched his career high, were the most by a Yankees lefty since 2012, when Curtis Granderson hit 43 and Robinson Canó 33. No Yankees lefty hit more than 15 in 2021, and only one had topped 20 in ’18 (Didi Gregorius with 27) and ’19 (Brett Gardner with 28). While Yankee Stadium certainly favors lefty power given its dimensions (314 feet down the right field line and 385 to right-center, compared to 399 to left-center and 318 to left), the team’s recent home run totals have been bolstered significantly thanks to the propensity of righties such as Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Gleyber Torres to go the other way.
Rizzo did hit 19 home runs at Yankee Stadium this year, 16 of them in the direction of the short porch in right field, but he wasn’t entirely a product of home cooking; he produced a 125 wRC+ on the road to go with his 139 mark at home. Though never one to light up Statcast, he set a career high in barrel rate (10.9%, after back-to-back seasons right around his career mark of 7.8%) and finished within an eyelash of doing so via hard-hit rate (40.7%)
As for his low batting average, it owed a lot to infield shifts. Rizzo’s 40 wRC+ on such shifts was the majors’ 10th-lowest mark among left-handed hitters with at least 150 PA:
Lefty Hitters with Lowest wRC+ vs. Infield Shifts
Minimum 150 plate appearances with balls in play against infield shifts. * = switch-hitter; totals are for lefthanded only.
As a result, Rizzo produced a .216 batting average on balls in play, the AL’s second-lowest mark. With the new-for-2023 rule effectively banning the shift, he should get back some of those lost hits, though it’s not likely to be a ton of them; ZiPS projects a .247 batting average for next season, and Steamer a .241 mark.
Even though he opted out of his previous contract, it seemed more likely than not that Rizzo would return. Though he’s no longer playing at the level that earned him three straight All-Star appearances from 2014 to ’16 and three straight Gold Gloves from ’18 to ’20 (he had -3 DRS and -2 RAA this year but was a finalist for the award nonetheless), he’s been a very good fit for the Yankees not only in terms of his left-handedness but also within their clubhouse. As The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner noted, “[Judge] and Rizzo have grown close, with the latter viewed as the unofficial co-captain of the clubhouse.” While that’s unlikely to be the deciding factor when Judge decides whether or not to return, it can’t hurt.
What’s more, the free-agent market for first basemen is thin; switch-hitter Josh Bell and Brandon Belt are the only other notable bats that could have helped balance a lineup that otherwise had no lefty. Neither Bell nor Belt matched Rizzo’s wRC+ and 2.4 WAR this year, with the former producing a 123 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR, and the latter a 96 wRC+ and zero WAR in his fourth injury-marred season out of his past six. Handedness aside, Abreu is the only free-agent first baseman who projects to be more productive than Rizzo, and his Steamer projection of 2.4 WAR isn’t that much more than Rizzo’s 2.1.
Courtesy of Dan Szymborski, here’s Rizzo’s ZiPS projection for the next three seasons. It’s notably more optimistic than Steamer:
ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo
For space reasons, Rizzo’s hit-by-pitch projection isn’t in the table, but he’s averaged 21 per year over the past six seasons even including the pandemic-shortened one and projects for 22 here (one shy of his 2021 and ’22 totals), and thus 536 PA. On a prorated basis, ZiPS projects him to be about 28% more productive than Steamer does.
The ZiPS contract estimate for the above projection is two years and $35 million or three years and $46 million; for our Top 50 Free Agents list, Ben Clemens estimated another two-year, $32 million deal, and our median crowdsource came in at three years and $54 million. That $6 million buyout for 2025 thus represents a nice premium on the guaranteed portion of the deal, reflecting the Yankees’ obvious desire to keep Rizzo around.
Here’s how his projection percentiles shake out:
2023 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Anthony Rizzo
While it appears unlikely Rizzo will regain his All-Star form, that’s still a pretty solid floor, particularly with LeMahieu around to fill in; even if he only hits his 30th-percentile projection, the Yankees are likely to get above-average production from the spot.
That the Yankees locked up Rizzo so quickly is an indicator that they’ll take an aggressive approach this winter after falling short of reaching the World Series for a 13th straight season. Owner Hal Steinbrenner didn’t shy away from addressing the elephant in the room at the owners’ meetings on Tuesday, saying of Judge, “I’ve absolutely conveyed that I want him to be a Yankee for the rest of his life… He knows the rest is up to him and his family and where they want to go from here, but we’re going to do what we can. I can assure you.” More, via Kirschner:
“Honestly, my budget for Judge is going to be what it’s going to be and what I feel like we can do,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s not limitless, obviously… In my opinion we’re going to be able to sign Aaron. That’s not going to stop me from signing other people. Some guys are going to come off the board sooner than others, and if it’s somebody we need or feel we need then I got to make the decision to continue improving the club and not hold back until we figure out Aaron.”
Aside from Judge, the Yankees most notably need to address the left side of their infield, where Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa were both disappointments on the offensive side, and where general manager Brian Cashman, who’s still working without a contract but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, has indicated that top prospect Anthony Volpe is a candidate to win the shortstop job. They’ll also need to fill the rotation spot vacated by Jameson Taillon’s free agency (a return is possible) and to beef up a bullpen that was stretched thin in October as well. With Rizzo back, they’ve quickly checked one significant item off their winter shopping list. We’ll see what’s next.