Strength in numbers at first base in NL Central
MESA, Ariz. -- First base will be the place to be in the National League Central this season.
The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo will have an all-star cast of conversation partners when he or one of his fellow first basemen get a hit.
Rizzo and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto already share a mutual respect. And with Paul Goldschmidt having gone from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the St. Louis Cardinals, there will be plenty more chances for Rizzo to talk shop on a high level.
But wait, there's more.
"The whole National League," Rizzo said recently at spring training. "(Eric) Hosmer, Freddie Freeman. It's fun. It's awesome. You get to go to the park every day and see your other side at the position. It's fun. I'm sure Joey and Goldie are saying the same thing.
"(Jesus) Aguilar's a stud in Milwaukee. Josh Bell (Pirates) is a rising star. It's fun to see our division like that. That's what you want. You want the best. If you prevail in this division this year, you're battle-tested the whole year."
Rizzo's calling card has been his consistency over the years, both on offense and defense -- he won his second career Gold Glove last year.
He has four straight seasons of at least 100 RBI and a career line of .270/.369/.484 with 191 home runs and 635 RBI. After hitting 32, 32, 31 and 32 homers in each of the four previous seasons, respectively, Rizzo's homer total dipped to 25 last year with a line of .283/.376/.470.
When called upon, he also batted in the leadoff position in 31 games last year, hitting 6 homers to give the offense a spark.
Like most of his teammates, he arrived in Arizona in good physical shape.
"My body feels great, like it does every time this year," he said. "I think that extra month of resetting, we haven't had that in awhile. I have to dissect the sting of the loss (in the wild-card game) which still (stinks) getting eliminated, but when you're able to back away for an extra 3-4 weeks, it's beneficial."
Manager Joe Maddon said early in spring training that he likes the way Rizzo looks.
"He looks great," Maddon said. "You can see a difference. He's been working hard just to really create flexibility to his body. That extra month that we're not used to probably had some benefit regarding how well he felt and how eager he was to get going. We've had such short offseasons. The shorter ones, you're maybe not quite ready to leave home. But when you have the longer one, you're absolutely ready to leave home and get back here."
As far as those other first basemen go, Freeman led the NL in wins above replacement (WAR) last year, at 5.2. Goldschmidt was second (5.1), as he supplants Matt Carpenter (5.0), who moves to third base in St. Louis. Cody Bellinger (3.6) of the Dodgers, Votto (3.5), Aguilar (3.1) and Rizzo (2.9) rounded out the WAR leaders in the NL in 2018.
Rizzo also noted Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection, which has had the Cubs around 80 wins for the upcoming season
"These projections, they need to make money, too, right?" he said "So why not throw a crazy projection in there on a monster-market team that knows that people are going to go to the website and look at these things? I'm sure it's a formula and all that and it's your job, but I think it's funny. We've won close to 100 games every year for the last four years. I don't see anything going differently this year. We have a very tough division with a lot of respect to them, but we know how to win."
Let those conversations begin around the first-base bag.