Widgets Magazine

Anthony Rizzo’s Fantasy Value

Written By on 22nd February, 2013

Anthony Rizzo experienced a breakout season in 2012, but is he for real?
Via Getty Images

Most astute fantasy baseball enthusiasts are aware the value of the players they own is constantly changing. What is most interesting — or perhaps important — about this fact is how much the value of a player can change over a short amount of time. One day a young hitter is labeled a suspected Quad-A slugger and ideal candidate to be platooned. Just a few months later, he is a potential middle-of-the-order bat and everyday regular. Every fantasy owners wishes they could see all of these wild fluctuations in value and player performance before they occur. While various statistics can have some predictive value, there’s no real way to perfectly project a player’s development (or lack thereof), and thus it is impossible to precisely gauge an effect on his fantasy-relevant numbers. Owners have to simply wait, watch, and react to what occurs on the field. If only fantasy analysis were so simple. Who is the real suspected Quad-A slugger-turned everyday regular? Is he the player who struggled to translate his minor league success into major league results?

Anthony Rizzo is one player who enhanced his bruised and battered reputation due to a massive breakout campaign in 2012. Prior to the season, as well as early into the year, owners considered him to be little more than long-term keeper league option and developing project. He sat on the waiver wire for months in shallow leagues. Fantasy owners in those shallow leagues tended to regard him with significant distrust — for good reason — even after the Cubs called him up to the majors. Questions about his bad speed being labeled “slider speed” made people worry that he may never hit — and excuse the hyperbole — a major league fastball. Now he is being selected in the middle rounds of those exact same shallow mixed league drafts. Can Rizzo be trusted to earn his value? Is his high level production from a year ago sustainable?

Once upon a time, Rizzo was best known for being a key player sent to the San Diego Padres in a trade that sent their franchise first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox. He promptly flopped in his one and only campaign with the San Diego organization, one in which he hit .141/.241/.282 with a single home run, a mere two steals and an unsightly 30.7% strikeout rate in 49 games and 153 plate appearances. Needless to say, he needed a bit more development time in the minors. The Padres didn’t exactly give up on him*, but they did ship him to the Cubs in a deal where they acquired oft-injured hurler Andrew Cashner. Of course, Rizzo went on to crush 38 homers and drive in 110 run between Triple-A and the majors in his inaugural campaign with the Cubs. Now that he has rebuilt his reputation and proved he could hit in the majors (at least for now), he’s being considered as a legitimate starting first baseman in the shallowest of mixed leagues. The question is can Rizzo truly be trusted as a fixture in fantasy lineups this season?

*Interesting note: Rizzo was drafted in 2007, when then Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and then fellow Red Sox front office personel Jed Hoyer were together. Hoyer eventually left Boston to become the GM of the San Diego Padres, where Hoyer acquired Rizzo. Presently, Epstein is the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs and Hoyer is the GM. Rizzo has essentially followed Epstein and Hoyer. Once can only hope he follows their success.

Is he the guy who “hit” below .150 in San Diego? Or is he the guy who mashed to the tune of a .285/.342/.463 line in 87 games and 368 plate appearances with the Cubs last season? One critical factor working in the young slugger’s favor is potential playing time. The Cubs don’t have anyone on their roster that is a threat to overtake Rizzo as the squad’s regular first baseman (Steve Clevinger is the only big-leaguer on the Cubs roster with any experience manning first). Even if the 23-year-old Rizzo opens his first full campaign in the majors with an April slump, the rebuilding Cubs will likely give him a considerable amount of time to hit his stride before taking away at-bats from him. Simply stated, even a less-than-productive Rizzo is far and away the team’s best option at the position. Now that there is expected playing time ahead for Rizzo, what should fantasy owners realistically expect from Rizzo at the plate in 2013?

While it was encouraging to see him almost cut his MLB strikeout rate in half last season, his 30.1% K% in 2011 fell to an under league average 16.8% K% in 2012, questions remain about Rizzo’s ability to maintain his new found discipline. His SwStr% dropped a full 5% in the same time frame, as his 2011 rate of 14.3% dropped to a much more reasonable 9.6% SwStr% this past season. To show or all batters with at least 150 PA’s in 2011, Rizzo’s 14.3% SwStr% was the sixteenth highest out of 405 eligible players. No surprise that his strikeout rate will be closely tied to his SwStr%, but seeing such a rapid improvement is certainly a good thing.

Despite these improvements made in the whiff department, Rizzo made no progress in his efforts to improve against left-handed pitching. He hit just .208 with seven extra-base hits in 107 plate appearances against southpaws in his breakout campaign of 2012. If he is expected to play every day, Rizzo will have to absolutely mash against righties in order to put up the kind of production fantasy owners need and want from a high output position like first base. Any fantasy owner who employed Eric Hosmer at first base a year ago understands the perils of relying on a young and developing first basemen who is still adjusting to major league pitching to be an impact player day in and day out in fantasy.

Bullpen Banter currently has Rizzo ranked 21st among fantasy first baseman, which makes sense given his inexperience and inconsistent track record in the majors. However, he could easily outperform some of the names ahead of him on the list, including Mark Reynolds, Ike Davis and the now injured Corey Hart. Rizzo will likely go ahead of the aforementioned trio (among others) in most fantasy drafts. That’s fine, but don’t be the owner who breaks their arm reaching for Rizzo due to expectations for numbers on par with those he put up in his half-season with Chicago in 2012.

Those who select the 23-year old Cubs first baseman of the future should also hedge their bets by grabbing a player with a proven track record of success and first base eligibility later on in their drafts. Consider it a safety net just in case Rizzo fails to perform up to expectations. Players like Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, and Kendrys Morales are all great late round options for those who gamble on Rizzo’s upside and potential in shallow leagues. As for deep mixed leagues (or NL-only formats), owners would be wise to take Rizzo only if the price is right. Sometimes it is more cost efficient and ultimately beneficial to take a proven veteran like Paul Konerko or Ryan Howard in those types of leagues, guys who have shown the ability to hit for power and rack up RBIs throughout their careers — even if they aren’t capable of the statistical heights Rizzo can provide. While those guys aren’t potential-laden selections fantasy owners can dream on, they don’t have nearly as much to prove as Rizzo does before he can truly be considered a reliable, long-term fantasy option at first base.

Mike Schmidt
Mike Schmidt
About Mike Schmidt

Mike Schmidt is an associate editor for a Wisconsin-based publishing company, a lifelong sports enthusiast and a recreational fantasy baseball writer. Talk fantasy sports and/or baseball with him on Twitter @MikeTSchmidt.

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