What would signing Bryce Harper mean for the Cubs core?

Harper
Future Cubs middle of the order? (Credit: Chicago Sun-Times)

Bryce Harper’s free agency has been a topic of discussion for baseball fans seemingly since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year old. The time is almost finally here. Harper will hit the market next winter as the leader of an uber-talented free agency class. All the top market teams will be in on him in one way or another.

It was long assumed that the New York Yankees would be the top suitor for Harper’s services. That changed this off-season when they instead acquired OF Giancarlo Stanton from Miami, presumably filling the spot that was open for Harper. Since then, the rumor linking Harper to the Chicago Cubs has gained more and more traction. Harper grew up playing baseball with current Cubs superstar Kris Bryant, who he remains good friends with to this day. Also, Harper’s dog is named Wrigley, which may or may not mean anything at all. Bryant expressed this off-season that he would be open to the idea of signing Bryce. Theo Epstein didn’t exactly downplay the rumor, telling a Cubs fan to “ask Kris Bryant” when asked when the fan could buy a Harper Cubs jersey.

As I said, surely there will be many teams interested in Harper come November. Several clubs have been saving their money for next off-season, and will come ready to spend. But where there is smoke, there is fire, and it is a very real possibility Harper will be wearing Cubbie blue on Opening Day 2019. So what would his arrival mean for the rest of the Cubs current core players? Explore, we shall:

The Contract

With a healthy and effective 2018 season, Bryce Harper will be aiming to beat Giancarlo Stanton’s mammoth 13-year, $325 million contract. With several big market teams ready to cut a check, he should do so rather easily as Bryce is a generational talent and will start his new contract as a 26-year old. Rarely do players this talented and this young reach free agency. The last was Alex Rodriguez, and his 10-year, $252MM contract before the 2001 season shattered previous records.

There have been rumors of a $400 million contract, a rumor to which Harper himself said “don’t sell me short”, indicating he is either trolling us all or genuinely expects between $400 and $500 million in guarantees. His contract will also almost certainly contain at least one opt-out clause. No matter which way interested clubs look at it, they will be adding at least $30-35 million in AAV to their payroll by signing Harper. Not many clubs can afford that, but that won’t dry up Harper’s market with big pocket teams lining up. The rest of the market will be waiting on Bryce, not the other way around.

Current Roster

Due to exceptional drafting and player development, the Cubs have a ton of young, cheap, controllable talent on their roster. From all the players that have contributed to the Cubs resurgence, only one has signed an extension, and that was Anthony Rizzo who signed a 7-year, $41 million deal during the 2013 season. The rest are still pre-arbitration, or just beginning the process now. Here are the current contract situations of Chicago’s core players:

Kyle Hendricks – Controllable through 2020

Tyler Chatwood – Through 2020

Jose Quintana – Through 2020 (club options for 2019 & 2020)

Kris Bryant – Through 2021

Anthony Rizzo – Through 2021 ($16.5MM club options in 2020 & 2021)

Addison Russell – Through 2021

Javier Baez – Through 2021

Kyle Schwarber – Through 2021

Jon Lester – Through 2021 (vesting option for 2021)

Willson Contreras – Through 2022

Ian Happ – Through 2023

Jason Heyward – Through 2023 (opt-out options after 2018 & 2019)

In the short-term, the Cubs are in an enviable position. A lot of these guys are a ways away from getting paid. According to Spotrac, before arbitration salaries, the Cubs have $122.5MM and $93.5MM committed to payroll in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Those aren’t small numbers by any means, but for a large market club it’s manageable. The Cubs could sign Harper, enjoy a few years worry free, and bask in the success. It’s after 2020 and 2021 that things begin to get more fascinating.

As you can see, the Cubs are due to lose 60% of their rotation following the 2020 season. Jon Lester, who will most likely be further along in his decline, will follow the year after. The North Siders will have to worry about re-signing or replacing some of these guys just as their best position players get expensive. Regardless, with few pitching prospects on the way, the Cubs will have to invest in their rotation. That is true with or without Bryce Harper, though a potential Harper contract on their books could limit how much they can invest in arms.

The more interesting part is the offense. Following 2021, the Cubs two cornerstone players, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, will be eligible for free agency. At the same time, infielder Javier Baez, shortstop Addison Russell, and outfielder Kyle Schwarber will be free agents as well. The year after, rapidly improving catcher Willson Contreras will hit the open market.

Certainly, not all of these guys will be in Chicago come the turn of the decade. Schwarber, Russell, Baez, and Happ have all been mentioned in trade rumors at one point or another. There will be other prospects that come along between now and then that could potentially replace some of these guys. But their free agency is looming one way or another, and replacing all of them internally will be difficult.

Bryant, Rizzo, and Contreras are the special cases here. It would be hard to argue against those three being the most irreplaceable players currently on the Cubs roster. The time to pay those three will arrive at roughly the same time. Bryant will be 29 when he reaches free agency, Rizzo will be 32, and Contreras will be 30. Harper will be just 29 by the time Bryant and Rizzo begin their new deals. The elephant in the room is outfielder Jason Heyward’s contract. Given the chance to go back, you’d think the Cubs would rather not have signed Heyward. He is two years into an eight-year, $184 million deal that has opt-outs following the next two seasons, but with his recent production it’s near impossible to see him terminating his contract.

It’s entirely likely that, with adequate health, Rizzo, Bryant, and Contreras will be lining up for contracts near or above $200 million in total value. With Harper already on the books for somewhere near $35 million a year, committing to those three players long-term would mean committing more than $120-150 million to five total position players. That is before handling the free agency of all the other players mentioned. Tying up near 50-60% of payroll to five players likely doesn’t make sense. The Cubs could sign Harper with the intention of letting one or more of their own players leave when they reach free agency. No matter how you slice it, landing Harper would likely mean saying goodbye to several of the players the Cubs have developed in recent years.

So What?

Does any of this mean anything? Like I said, the Cubs could sign Byrce Harper next off-season, enjoy the powerhouse line-up for three years, and worry about it later. It’s possible that some of these players will be traded, become ineffective, or get hurt. There’s no point in trying to predict contracts four plus years from now.

Additionally, the Cubs television deal expires following 2019, and there have been rumors of them starting their own TV network. The spawning of their own TV production would pump ridiculous amounts of money into the franchise’s pockets. The Cubs have also been in the Top-6 in attendance since 2015, and being from Illinois myself, I can confidently say as long as the Cubs are good, fans will sell Wrigley out. This is all without mentioning that Chicago is one of the biggest markets in all of sports. The Cubs are not going to be hurting for money to pay their players anytime soon.

However, the looming decisions will have to be in the back of the mind of the Cubs front office when pursuing Harper. While it would without a doubt increase their chances of winning the World Series in 2019-2021, it may shorten their contention window in the long-term. Having $50-60MM committed to just Harper and Heyward would mean having to make tough decisions on their rotation and the rest of their line-up later. It could also mean letting one or both of Bryant and Rizzo, two mega-stars in the Chicago area immortalized for helping break the Cubs curse, leave in free agency. Does adding Harper now make more sense than distributing that money amongst several players later? That is the ultimate question Theo Epstein and company must answer next winter.

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