As the Yankees roster currently stands, there isn’t a player on it who the organization or fans would be comfortable naming as the everyday first baseman entering 2022. The keywords are “every day”, because although Luke Voit he clearly can hit, he’s only been available for 62 percent of the team’s games since 2019 due to numerous trips to the IL. DJ LeMahieu could make for a league-average singles hitter as the everyday first baseman. Chris Gittens tore up Triple-A pitching last season but didn’t play well in his brief tenure with the Yankees, and perhaps more telling, the Yankees seemed reluctant to commit to him when they were very short on first basemen.
The good news for the Yankees is that although there aren’t many available options to upgrade and solidify the first base position, the few options that are available have pretty good resumes. One of them is a familiar face in free agent Anthony Rizzo.
Rizzo checks off some important boxes for a potential free agent Yankee signing: He’s left-handed, he’s a plus batter and fielder, New York likes him and vice versa (his production in Chicago and New York last season was virtually identical, so he clearly wasn’t uncomfortable with the surroundings.) Of course, there’s no way to know for sure what players and teams are thinking or expecting when it comes to the particulars of a contract, but the crack staff here at PSA estimates that Rizzo may require an approximate $18 million annual investment for 2-3 years. Let’s see if that would be a wise investment, or more importantly, the best option for the Yankees.
Last season between Chicago and New York, Rizzo posted a 111 OPS+ and 1.7 bWAR in 576 PA, which by his standards is a down season. When we go back a little further to include the shortened 2020 season, Rizzo has posted a 109 OPS+ over his last 819 PA. That of course is very good for a shortstop or catcher, but it’s not so good for a first baseman on whom you’re relying for offensive production. Although we don’t have a crystal ball, the Yankees have to consider the likelihood that the player who terrorized NL pitchers in the middle of the last decade is gone, and this version of Rizzo is what they’ll be getting if they sign him.
Before we get into whether that’s “worth it” from a financial standpoint, let’s see how Rizzo’s production stacked up against other MLB first basemen in 2021: Last season, among 23 players with a minimum of 400 PA who played more than two-thirds of their games at first base, Rizzo ranked 17th in bWAR and 18th in OPS+.
Another consideration if we’re talking about more than just next season, and all signs indicate that would be the case with a Rizzo signing, we have to consider age in regards to future performance. An optimist might suggest Rizzo is only 32 years old (he’ll be 33 in August) and it would likely be a contract of only two seasons – i.e., he may not be “prime” Anthony Rizzo, but will still be a productive player and it won’t be a long term contract that ends up hampering the team on the backend.
A pessimist might pump the brakes and compare his situation to that of other first basemen of a similar age in recent history. Interestingly, in the past ten full seasons, there have been only 11 first baseman to post two or more seasons of at least two WAR once hitting age 32. 30 rosters over 10 seasons is a lot of players, and only 11 have managed to be at least average for two seasons at Rizzo’s age (assuming we consider two WAR an average player.)
Would any of us groan or run to social media to yell into the void if Anthony Rizzo is the Yankees’ first baseman next season? No, of course not. The worst version of Anthony Rizzo is a long way from terrible, and from a fan’s perspective, he’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch play. Plus, you have to love a guy who’s OK with being plunked by an MLB pitcher an average of 21 times per season to help the team out.
However, assuming $18 million annually is close to accurate, Rizzo shouldn’t be on the Yankees’ priority list. Although an upgrade over the current roster options, it’s not likely to be a significant enough upgrade to justify using those resources when they can be allocated to areas where much more significant upgrades can be made, both in 2022 and ongoing.