Did the Cubs give Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro the money too soon?



One of the major themes of the Chicago Cubs’ 2013 season is whether team management was hasty in awarding long term extensions to shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo when both were under club control for several more years.  On August 28, 2012, the Cubs signed Castro to a seven-year, $53 million contract through 2019 even though he was under club control through the 2016 season.

They followed suit with Rizzo on May 13, 2013 when they signed him to a seven-year, $41 million deal that also runs through the 2019 season.  Rizzo would have been under club control through the 2017 season.  Castro’s deal averages approximately $7.6 million per season, Rizzo’s $5.9.

In the first season of their extensions, both players are struggling.  Through Sunday, Castro was batting .244 in 520 plate appearances with seven home runs, two triples, 26 doubles, 32 RBI, 20 walks and 102 strikeouts.  His On-Base-Percentage (OBS) was .280 and his slugging percentage .345.  Castro, who debuted with the Cubs on May 7, 2010, had 1912 plate appearances before this season.  His career average was .296, OPB .340 and slugging percentage .430.  He had averaged one walk for every 2.67 strikeouts prior to 2013.  That number had ballooned this year to one walk for every 4.9 strikeouts.  Thus, he is hitting for less power and a lower average and making less contact.
Last year, Castro’s fielding percentage was .964, which ranked last among qualifying major league shortstops.  His Range Factor of 4.69 ranked sixth out of 21 qualifiers and his DWARP (Defensive Wins Above Replacement Player) of 1.2 ranked tenth.  While he continues to have inexplicable mental lapses, like the one last Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals when he misapprehended the Infield Fly Rule, the one bright spot of Castro’s season is his improved fielding percentage.  Castro’s fielding percentage through Sunday was a career-high .970, but that number still ranked twentieth among  22 qualifying major league shortstops.  His Range Factor of 4.06 ranked seventeenth, and his DWARP of 0.0 nineteenth.  Nevertheless, all of his defensive statistics, if isolated over the last two months, would rank much higher among qualifiers.
Through Sunday, Rizzo was hitting .230 in 526 plate appearances with 32 doubles, two triples, eighteen home runs and 65 RBI.  He had walked 59 times and fanned 97.  His OBP was.323 and slugging percentage 435.  After debuting with the Cubs last June 26, Rizzo hit .285 in 368 plate appearances with fifteen home runs, fifteen doubles, zero triples, 27 walks and 62 strikeouts.  His OBP was 342 and slugging percentage .463.  Thus, Rizzo’s power, contact rate and OBP are all down from last year.
Last year defensively, Rizzo’s .995 fielding percentage would have tied him with six other first basemen for fourth among eighteen qualifiers; his Range Factor of 9.0 would have ranked seventh; and his DWARP of -0.1 would have tied for fifth.  This season, Rizzo’s fielding statistics have improved across the board.  His .996 fielding percentage ranks fourth among 22 qualifying first basemen; his Range factor of 9.20 ranks tenth; and his DWARP of 0.4 is tied for first.
One of the risks of any long term contract is being saddled with a player whose performance declines during the deal and who is no longer being paid commensurate with the production for which he was signed.  This risk is enhanced when a team awards a long term deal to a player based on a limited performance sample.  When a player grossly underperforms relative to his long term deal, his team is left in the unenviable position of having to keep the player and accept the substandard performance or part with the player, assuming there is even a market, in a disadvantageous trade.
Keeping a player who is underperforming during a long term deal creates roster inflexibility, which could soon become an issue with both Castro and Rizzo.  The Cubs’ consensus top minor league prospect, Javier Baez, plays the same position as Castro.  Moving Baez to another position to accommodate Castro likely means that other viable players in the system could be forced out.  Rizzo’s position of first base is also well represented in the Cubs’ minor league system by Justin Bour, Dan Vogelbach, Jacob Rogers and Dustin Geiger.
The objective of signing a player to a long term contract at an early stage of his career is to establish roster stability and financial certainty and to hopefully achieve financial savings.  If Castro’s first three seasons and Rizzo’s 2012 season offensively and 2013 season defensively prove to be representative of their future production during the duration of their contracts, then their deals will have saved the Cubs millions than if they had waited deeper into Castro’s and Rizzo’s careers to commence negotiations.
There is no contradiction in believing that a player will become a productive player, even a star, yet oppose the timing of giving him a long term extension based on what you believe to be too limited a sample size.  While we believe both players will become productive members of the Cubs, the team made a perilous move in giving Rizzo an extension based on such a limited sample size.  Conversely, we think there was a sufficient sample size to justify giving Castro an extension.
Let’s start with Castro.
Fans are admittedly frustrated with the regression in Castro’s production offensively; and defensively in terms of DWARP and Range Factor.  Yet the production that, in management’s estimation, merited the long-term extension occurred over a sample size of approximately 1800 plate appearances and almost three seasons.  This season’s poor performance has occurred in 530 plate appearances or less than 1/3 the pre-extension sample size.  He has not suffered a major injury or reached an age where an appreciable drop in performance would be expected.  Thus, we are willing to defer to the 1800 plate appearances as a better predictor of Castro’s future production than the much smaller sample that has given rise to the second guessing this season.
Slump seasons by young veteran players with several productive years on their resume–Castro’s profile from 2010 to 2012–not only are not unprecedented, but they are quite common.  In fact, Mike Schmidt, Paul Molitor, Dale Murphy, Gary Carter and Joe Morgan, all but Murphy in the Hall of Fame, had anomalous slump seasons, among dozens of others we identified.
Mike Schmidt:  Schmidt, arguably the greatest slugging third baseman in MLB history, averaged 41 home runs, 109 RBI and a .559 slugging percentage from 1974 to 1977 and 1979 and 1980.  Yet, in 1978, at age 28, he hit only 21 home runs with 78 RBI and slugged just .435.
Paul Molitor:  From 1979 to 1982, excluding the strike-shortened and Molitor’s injury-plagued 1981 season, Molitor’s average batting average was .309, OBP .370 and slugging percentage .452.  Then at age 26 in 1983, he averaged .270 with an OBP of .333 and slugging percentage of .410.  After injury wiped out the majority of Molitor’s 1984 season, he went on a fourteen year run during which he hit over .300, produced an OPB of .350 plus and a slugging percentage of over .450 nine times apiece.
Dale Murphy:  One of the great sluggers of the 1980’s, Murphy had an average slugging percentage and average batting average from 1980 through 1987, excluding 1981, of .529 and .290, respectively.  Yet in 1981, at age 25, he averaged .247 and slugged .390.
Gary Carter:  The HOF catcher’s average slugging percentage and average batting average between 1977 and 1985, excluding the 1978 season, were .484 and .278, respectively.  However, at age 24 in 1978, he slugged only .422 and batted .255.
Joe Morgan:  From 1965 to 1977, excluding the 1968 season of which Morgan missed the vast majority due to injury and the 1969 campaign, The HOF second baseman’s average season batting average was .288, slugging percentage .453 and OBP .406.  Yet in 1969, at age 25, he batted .236 with a .372 slugging percentage and .365 OPB.
In each of the above cases, the player suffered an anomalous slump season amid an otherwise productive stretch of several seasons.
By no means are we suggesting that Castro is ticketed for Cooperstown by citing slump seasons of mostly HOF players.  We are merely making the point that even the best position players, after establishing a solid body of work, can suffer a season-long detour before finding their way again.  There is no reason to believe that Castro, if sheds the excessive front leg kick in his swing and makes other mechanical adjustments, cannot reduce 2013 to an anomaly in an otherwise long, successful career.  Thus, we support management’s move to extend Castro even though he was under club control for several more seasons and while acknowledging the downside risks involved.
We still believe that Rizzo will be a successful core member of the Cubs, particularly when factoring in his defensive improvement.  Yet based on Rizzo’s approximately three month Cubs’ debut last year and horrible and even shorter cameo with the Padres in 2011, a total of 490 plate appearances (368 with the Cubs), the Cubs should have waited at least another year before offering him an extension.  While delaying the extension might have cost the team more financially, it would have minimized the downside risk of rewarding a player a long term contract based on such a small sample size.
To support our position, we cite three Rookie of the Year (ROY) winners who never came close to duplicating their first season.  These are players whose sample sizes are all larger than Rizzo’s Cubs’ sample from last season.
Joe Charboneau:  The 1980 American League ROY for the Cleveland Indians, the outfielder and designated hitter batted .289, belted 23 homers and seventeen doubles and drove in 87 runs in 512 plate appearances.  He slugged .488 and had an OPB of .358.  By 1981, Charboneau’s production had declined so appreciably, he split time between Cleveland and the Indians’ AAA affiliate.  He spent the entire 1983 and 1984 seasons in the minors after which he never played affiliated baseball again.
Jerome Walton:  The 1989 National League ROY for the Cubs, CF Walton, 23, hit .293 with five home runs, 23 doubles, three triples and 46 RBI in 515 plate appearances.  He also stole 24 bases in 31 attempts.  Walton’s OPB was .335 and slugging percentage .385.  By the following year, all but Walton’s OBP had dropped precipitously, and by 1991, his season batting average plummeted to .219.  He spent the next six seasons with six teams and bounced between AAA and the majors, totaling less major league plate appearances combined, 498, than he did in his rookie year.
Bob Hamelin:  The American League ROY in the 1994 strike-shortened season, Hamelin, 26, produced prolific numbers for the Kansas City Royals.  In 375 plate appearances, the burly first baseman and designated hitter batted .282 with 24 home runs, 25 doubles and 62 RBI.  His OPB was .388 and slugging percentage a robust .599.  After two terrible seasons with the Royals in 1995 and 1996, the club released him.  He seemed to enjoy a renaissance year with the Detroit Tigers in 1997, hitting .270 with eighteen home runs, fifteen doubles and 52 RBI to complement a .366 OPB and .476 slugging percentage, but the Tigers did not tender him a contract at season’s end, making him a free agent.  He had a woeful 1998 campaign with the Milwaukee Brewers, who released him at season’s end, and Hamelin spent one year in the minors before his career ended.
In all of the above cases, the clubs would have severely regretted giving the players long term extensions based on their limited sample size even though they resulted in Rookie of the Year awards.  We steadfastly believe Rizzo is not going to follow the same career trajectory of Charboneau, Walton and Hamelin, but the Cubs should have been more patient to make certain that the small sample sizes that falsely seduced the fan bases of Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City did not seduce the Cubs into a very expensive decision they will come to regret.
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