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Will Anthony Rizzo and the New York Yankees come to an agreement, or will the pinstripes need to look for a first baseman?

The Yankees thought that they had found their first baseman in Anthony Rizzo, but after turning down his $16 million option, they might need to start shopping

The Yankees thought that they had found their first baseman in Anthony Rizzo, but after turning down his $16 million option, they might need to start shopping

There are no unimportant positions on an MLB roster, but in a game of equals, some positions are more equal than others. The middle infield and hot corner at third base need speed and strong arms, outfielders have to cover a lot of ground quickly. But when it comes to a solid, reliable backstop, there are two positions that command excellence. The catcher and first base.

Apart from the catcher, nobody’s glove is more in contact with the baseball than the first baseman. However, unlike a catcher, who has a pitcher in control of the delivery, the first baseman is much more likely to have to dig throws out of the dirt. If a pitch goes into the dirt for a catcher, it is either by design or he will be forgiven for not being able to get to it. If a first baseman lets one by him, nobody lets him forget it. Ever.

The Yankees, love them or hate them, are the premier team in baseball, and that is just the way it is. It has been that way since the 1920s. That isn’t to say that they are the best, or that they spend the most, or even that they are even any good. Through most of the 1980s, they were more of a punchline than a serious contender. But no matter what your personal feelings about the team in the Bronx are, there is no way around the fact that the Yankees are almost bigger than baseball itself.

When you put on the pinstripes, it means something. Fans of any other team hate to see their best and brightest be lured annually to New York by the pull of the Yankees deep pockets and long pedigree, but for players, it is an honor that is impossible to ignore.

At the same time in mid-2021 as the Texas Rangers were surrendering Joey Gallo to the altar of Steinbrenner, the Chicago Cubs lost their grip on their own three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo. Gallo had his own share of problems in New York and was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But in Rizzo, hopes in the Big Apple were very high indeed.

Those who have come before

The Yankees first baseman is a sacred spot in their lineup. Everyone who ever plays the position comes in the shadow of Lou Gehrig, perhaps the finest first baseman to ever play the game. But everyone on the list sets the bar nearly as high. Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Mark Teixeira, Jason Giambi… when you take up your spot on that bag in Yankee Stadium, you are carrying a lot of weight on your shoulders.

Which is perhaps an explanation for why it is so difficult for the Yankees to fill it for any length of time. In the last few years, since Teixeira’s departure, it has become something of a revolving door. When Rizzo was brought over, it looked to many as if they had found their man for the foreseeable future.

Even Rizzo was positive about staying on for a while. “I’m not an expert on it, but you always have to respect what players have done before you,” Rizzo said at the time. “There’s a rich history here at every position and you want to be part of that legacy.”

My how times have changed

2022 was an outstanding year for Anthony Rizzo. He hit 32 home runs for the fourth time in his career, and averaged .224 with 75 RBIs and 77 runs scored.

In the post season, he raised that average to .276 even as the Houston Astros swept the Yankees in the ALCS. Although overshadowed by Aaron Judge’s record-breaking 62-home run season, Rizzo finished the season number two in home runs and with the fifth-highest average on the team. You would think that him playing first base in New York next season was a foregone conclusion. And the Yankees did. Until Rizzo turned them down.

Rizzo rejected the $16 million option for next season that was in his contract, opting instead to become a free agent. The Yankees have countered with a qualifying offer of $19.5 million, and both sides have until Thursday to accept it or move on.

“At this point, my wife and I will sit down with my agents and we’ll talk about all that,” Rizzo told reporters after the Astros sweep. “But I’ve told them since signing the deal we’re not going to talk about it until after the season. Now in the next few weeks, it’s time to talk about it.”

It is unclear whether Rizzo wants to stay in New York and is angling for a better deal or if he feels that his time in the Bronx has come to an end. It has caught most of baseball off-guard, and if the Yankees can’t find a way to hold onto him, could be the biggest shock move since the drama that saw Freddy Freeman wind up in Los Angeles.

If not Rizzo, then who?

First basemen of Rizzo’s quality are out there. But not many are available for dealing, at any cost. One of those would be the aforementioned Freddy Freeman. The Dodgers will have no appetite for letting him go, and it is unlikely that he would be receptive to the upheaval himself. Ditto Vlad Guerrero or Matt Olson. It is just possible that the Yankees could pluck Max Muncy from LA, or less likely perhaps Paul Goldschmidt from the Cardinals.

Yuli Gurriel is entering free agency this year and could be a fantastic fit for the Yankees. His power is inferior to Rizzo’s, but his average is leagues ahead. One downside is his age. At 38 years old, the Yankees would be able to get one or two years out of him, but more than that is hope rather than certainty. Brandon Belt, Jose Abreu and Josh Bell are all on the market and the right side of 35.

Of all of these players, Belt and Bell are the only ones who can hit from the left side.

If the Yankees are willing to let the left-handed hitter part of the deal go, then one of their targets could be Pete Alonso from the Mets. His $7.4 million for the 2022 season is chump change compared to the numbers that he put up in Queens. The Steinbrenners would have no trouble doubling that for a subway ride across town. And at only 29 years old, he could be in for the long haul.

But the Yankees have all the hallmarks of wanting to deal with Anthony Rizzo. They know that plucking successful players from other squads will not necessarily translate to success in New York. They have offered a fair price, although significantly lower than his estimated $23 million market value. Whether there is a true will by either side to keep Rizzo in pinstripes remains to be seen.


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