Cubs Can Build a 2018 Champion Without Sacrificing Bryce Harper Dream

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2018

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 09:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals walks back to the dugout after striking out in the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs during game three of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field on October 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Anyone looking from afar can be forgiven if they perceive the Chicago Cubs to be so preoccupied with fitting Bryce Harper for a uniform that they're neglecting more immediate priorities.

Fear not. At least, not too much.

The Cubs ended their 2017 season by being thoroughly outclassed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Although this happened just a year after snapping a 108-year World Series title drought, it was apparent then and there that a significant course correction was in order for the North Siders.

In fairness, the Cubs are the rare team that hasn't spent the offseason saying "Nah" to the free-agent market. They've signed a class of newcomers headlined by four pitchers: Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Drew Smyly.

But, to date, no big fish have been forthcoming.

It was already hard not to wonder if that was because the Cubs were holding out for next year's ridiculous free-agent class, which will notably be headlined by Harper.

After the latest from team chairman Tom Ricketts, it's now impossible not to wonder about this.

"Next year's free-agent class is different than this year's free-agent class," Ricketts said last Friday, per Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago. "I think what you're seeing with teams out there would rather have dry powder a year from now. ... There's a lot of pieces and parts, but ultimately, I think teams are trying to keep their powder dry."

To an extent, this is a weak excuse to presently be pinching pennies. The Cubs are projected to open 2018 with a $157 million payroll. They opened 2016 and 2017 over $170 million. 

Of course, any big fish signed to a multi-year deal will be around beyond 2018. That's a legitimate issue in this case.

Due to new functions in the new collective bargaining agreement, the Cubs must be as afraid of the luxury-tax threshold as the next team. They sure look afraid now, as they're projected at $35.4 million under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018. But even with the threshold due to increase to $206 million, that same space may not be there in 2019.

Chicago's $120.1 million tax figure for 2019 isn't counting a $6.25 million option for Pedro Strop or a $10.5 million option for Jose Quintana. Nor is it counting second trips through arbitration for Kris Bryant (who just made arbitration history with a $10.85 million salary), Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell or first trips through arbitration for Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

Given that Harper could cost as much as $30 million or even $40 million per year, this is a big picture that the Cubs darn well should be wary about if their ultimate goal is to sign him.

Certainly, they're not unreasonable if that is their ultimate goal.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals talks with Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Nationals Park on June 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. Chicago won the game 4-3.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images
G Fiume/Getty Images

In six seasons with the Washington Nationals, Harper has been an All-Star five times and an MVP once in 2015. Injuries have sidelined him here and there, to be sure. But highlighted by a 1.109 OPS, 42 home runs and 9.9 wins above replacement, that MVP season showed upside that only Mike Trout can match. And he'll only turn 26 in October.

The Cubs happen to have the perfect piece of bait to help reel in Harper. He and Bryant (who just turned 26 this month) both grew up in Las Vegas and are now good friends. Suffice it to say, Bryant wouldn't mind them becoming teammates.

"Who wouldn't want Bryce Harper on their team?" he said last Friday, according to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. 

In the meantime, though, it's within reason to question whether premature coveting of Harper is causing the Cubs to unwittingly punt on 2018. After all, the list of reasons to have faith doesn't go on forever.

FanGraphs does project the Cubs as the NL Central's best team next year. That has much to do with how well they've spread their money around this winter. They got Morrow and Cishek, who are coming off terrific years, for the price of one Wade Davis. Formerly of the Colorado Rockies, Chatwood is an excellent ground-ball artist who excelled away from Coors Field. It also has to do with expected turnarounds from incumbents, most notably Jon Lester after he was less than ace-like in 2017.

The goal, however, isn't to simply end up atop the NL Central. The goal is to return to the World Series.

That could mean going back through the Dodgers, who still look like the better team. Or it could mean going through the Nationals, who have more than enough talent to snap their streak of first-round exits from October.

To attain equal footing with these two National League rivals, the least the Cubs need is another starting pitcher.

If they also buy that Lester is due for a rebound that would cement him, Hendricks and Quintana as one of the best starting trios in baseball, they could go a low-risk route with a one-year contract. Useful pitchers who might be amenable to one of those are Andrew Cashner, Jaime Garcia and Jason Vargas.

Whether or not the Cubs do that, they could choose to wait and see if they truly need a bigger rotation upgrade. If yes, they could seek one on the summer trade market. Talented rentals who could come available are J.A. Happ, Patrick Corbin or Garrett Richards. Even better would be a controllable ace such as Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Danny Duffy or Marcus Stroman.

Or, there's the nuclear option: The Cubs go for broke now and figure out later, later.

I've already stumped for the Cubs to fill Jake Arrieta's shoes with Yu Darvish. At the start of the offseason, that was a sure thing to be at least a $25-million-per-year investment. Now, it may be at most that much. Possibly less.

That would still eat into whatever money the Cubs have earmarked for Harper, but there's no rule that says they couldn't make space. That could be done by trading some of their arbitration guys, such as Russell or Schwarber. Even better would be offloading some of the $106 million remaining on Jason Heyward's contract after 2018.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs don't have to choose between Harper for 2019 or going for glory in 2018. They just have to choose the best way to try for both.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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