Wittenmyer: Cubs' lowball Rizzo offer could be costly mistake


If the Cubs’ approach to extension talks with Anthony Rizzo are any indication, say goodbye to the All-Star first baseman.

And to Javy Báez.

And, of course, Kris Bryant.

And might as well get the planning committee together now for next year’s Willson Contreras Farewell Tour.

Maybe the Cubs will still get a contract extension done with Rizzo before he becomes a free agent next fall.

But counting on a longstanding personal relationship to keep the dialogue open while making a lowball offer based on perceived markets and projection models is the definition of tone-deaf.

“I told my agents not to talk to me about it anymore, even from this point on, really,” Rizzo said Monday morning, shutting down talks with the club after an extension offer believed to be in the four-year range for little more average annual value than the $16.5 million his current team-friendly deal pays him in 2021.

“It was good to have clarity one way or the other,” added Rizzo, who had set an Opening Day deadline for getting a deal done. “Now I can get ready for the season.

“I can’t tell you what the future holds.”

Is Rizzo, 31, worth the five-year, $130 million the Cardinals gave Paul Goldschmidt two years ago at the same age — probably the closest comp?

Maybe not on the open market in this climate. Maybe not if his back acts up more often than the few days a season it has in recent years, or if he otherwise doesn’t age well.

Is he worth closer to what Goldschmidt got or closer to half that?

That question seems insulting on its face — even before you get to the fact that, according to multiple sources, the latter is where the Cubs’ offer fell.

And people wonder why Rizzo cut off talks and decided to talk to media via Zoom on Monday to slam the ball back into the Cubs’ court, despite a strong relationship with team president Jed Hoyer that spans three organizations and Rizzo’s entire professional career.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think it’s over yet. But it’s just part of the business. This is a business, and you need to separate it, because every good business person will tell you there’s no friendships really in business.”

What’s the message here? What’s the end game? The best price the Cubs can get on a player who hasn’t asked for Goldschmidt money from one of the wealthiest franchises in the sport — and might be willing to work out something for less?

And what’s his value to this team, that knows him so well, that won the most celebrated team championship in American team sports with him among those leading the charge, that has called him its leader, if not the center of a team culture nine years in the making?

That’s where the analytics and bean-counting side of the Cubs’ efforts with Rizzo so far veer from tone-deaf toward embarrassing.

If Rizzo isn’t considered the cultural conduit in the clubhouse that team officials publicly say he is, a championship player who plays hard enough to limp back from a “season-ending” ankle injury in a few days to homer against the Cardinals in a pennant race, who has finally grown into the full-fledged leadership role they envisioned years ago under a good-fit manager and mentor, well, then consider the message delivered with the lowball offer.

But if he’s all those things the team has claimed he is, then what the hell?

And good luck selling that lip service to the next “core” player. And the next. And the next coveted free agent who also has an offer from, say, the Cardinals.

When this Cubs regime took over before the 2012 season, the Cardinals were viewed as the standard setter, if not in the league, then certainly in the division, when it comes to a team culture built on expectations, continuity and winning.

That continuity has been built over decades of winning generations of core players in St. Louis passing down the expectations and so-called culture to the next.

That’s why catcher Yadi Molina got a three-year, $60 million contract in his late 30s that took him through 2020 and is back on a one-year deal for a 2021 season in which he’ll turn 39.

Longtime Cardinals rotation workhorse Adam Wainwright already is 39 — and back on an $8 million deal.

If you’re looking for a Cubs comp there, consider their rejection of Jon Lester when the free agent veteran offered to come back for less than the $5 million he eventually got from Washington.

What happened to all that talk about building a culture in Chicago? A Cubs Way?

It only counts if an important core player takes a team-friendly deal based on a set of projections that have nothing to do with culture or the more human element of the game?

Hell, even the small-revenue Royals recognized the larger value of catcher Salvador Perez to the next contending core they’re trying to build by signing him to a four-year, $82 million extension that starts when he’s 31.

And don’t forget the little-market Reds and first baseman Joey Votto — who four years after his 2010 MVP signed a 10-year, $225 million deal that will pay him $25 million in each of his age 34, 35, 36, 37, 38 and 39 seasons.

The Reds and Royals?

And don’t start crying pandemic poverty and “biblical losses.” There’s more projected money in the game than ever as the sport emerges from last year’s short season with recent franchise valuations by Forbes rising for all but the Rays (whose value stayed flat) — and with the Mets being purchased for a record sale price during the pandemic.

Rizzo isn’t so much a Cubs legend to put on a pedestal in this context (although some on Twitter seem to believe he is).

But he’s the best example, if not the first real test, of whether the Cubs believe all the talking points that Hoyer and Theo Epstein before him have delivered since the fall of 2011.

Back then they promised a “player development machine” that has yet to materialize: Strike one.

They criticized the previous regime for foolish free agent spending, then whiffed on Edwin Jackson, committed $184 million to Jason Heyward, and in one offseason alone unsuccessfully chased the free agent stuff of pitchers Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish ($185 million total): Strike two.

Finally, they promised a Cubs Way culture built on “sustained success,” expectations, winning and continuity.

So what will it say if they can’t get a deal done with a definitive, championship-core guy who might be the most motivated player to make a deal since David Bote?

You don’t need a robot umpire for that one.

Talk about going down looking.

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