Although he wasn’t called up until late-June, Anthony Rizzo‘s debut with the Cubs last season couldn’t have gone much better. He hit .285/.342/.463 (116 wRC+) overall and was even better against righties: .318/.383/.508 (141 wRC+). His 15 homers were split evenly between home (seven) and away (eight), so it’s not like his power was solely a product of Wrigley’s friendly confines. Left-handers gave Rizzo some serious trouble (.208/.243/.356, 56 wRC+), but given the team’s situation, it’s safe to say he will get more than 107 plate appearances to prove he needs a platoon partner.
ZiPS is quite bullish on the 23-year-old Rizzo, projecting a .279/.349/.503 (.362 wOBA) line with 32 doubles and 31 homers in 642 plate appearances this year. That projection is on par with guys like Albert Pujols (.354 wOBA and 31 HR), Mark Teixeira (.352 wOBA and 26 HR), and Paul Konerko (.356 wOBA and 26 HR). It’s some impressive company for a kid who has yet to play a full season in the show, especially when you consider he is (theoretically) on the way up while the other four I cherry-picked are on the way down.
Expected fantasy production at first base is pretty high, but a 280-ish average and 30+ dingers will play anywhere. Crudely plugging the ZiPS projections into the ottoneu points scoring system gives us a touch more than 870 points, which was Adrian Gonzalez territory last year. The system is clearly a fan and expects big things out of Rizzo in 2013, and as a fantasy owner — I have him for $6 in our staff ottoneu league and plan on using him as my primary first baseman this summer — there are two things that really encourage me. First…
A climbing walk rate — he was intentionally walked just once (in late-August) last year — especially for a young player, is always good to see. A lot of guys, even if they have a track record of walking a ton in the minors, can get a little hacky when they first arrive in the show. That goes double when they’re thrust into the middle of the lineup — 82 of Rizzo’s 85 starts came as the three-hole hitter, the other three at cleanup — and have been talked up as the next big thing that will help get a bad team back on the right path. Rizzo showed that he has an idea of the strike zone and the willingness to take the free pass if he doesn’t get anything to hit. That’s an important part of becoming/being a great hitter and a positive for me.
The other important thing is that we know he’s going to play. There’s no doubt that Rizzo is going to play first base every single day for the Cubs next year, barring injury of course. Even against lefties, he’ll be in the lineup and in the middle of the order ready to drive in Starlin Castro and David DeJesus and whoever else is on-base. That playing time certainty is huge, it means he will get the opportunity to work through any struggles without having to worry about looking over his shoulder because some veteran is looming — the Cubs don’t even have a veteran backup first baseman on the 40-man roster at the moment — and the team is falling out of the race. Job security is very important to consider when targeting young players for fantasy purposes. You don’t want someone who could be shipped back to Triple-A at a moment’s notice.
Rizzo’s strong half-season with Chicago last summer got me excited for 2013, so the ZiPS projection was reassuring. There’s always the chance he’ll turn into Justin Smoak, young players risky like that, but a left-handed power hitter with a clue at the plate who will spend half his games in Wrigley Field is someone worth targeting. The NL Central isn’t blessed with many above-average lefty starters outside of Wandy Rodriguez, Jaime Garcia, and maybes like Aroldis Chapman and Francisco Liriano, so the need for a backup first base bat isn’t great. I’m planning to sit Rizzo against the real tough lefties this year, like whenever Clayton Kershaw or Cole Hamels come to town, but otherwise I’m planning for a breakout and like the Cubs, will let him sink or swim.