The Cubs made an early exit from the postseason this month and the reason was that their offense went flat at exactly the wrong moment. But it wasn’t just the tiebreaker and the Wild Card game. The Cubs offense struggled the entire second half. Before the All-Star Break, the Cubs led the National League in runs scored, on-base percentage, batting average and OPS. After the All-Star Break, they were eighth in runs scored, ninth in on-base percentage and tenth in OPS. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Cubs offense abandoned them in the second half.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t reasons for that that such as injuries and fatigue that may not be repeated in 2019. But it would be pollyannaish to claim that the Cubs offense doesn’t need help. That’s why they got Daniel Murphy in August and he helped for a while before he too struggled down the stretch.
The Cubs need to add some offense this winter. The pitching was excellent in the second half and Cole Hamels should be back for an entire season. I believe Yu Darvish will come back healthy and pitch well. Drew Smyly is waiting in the wings. Tyler Chatwood might be a lost cause, but you never know. The point is that the Cubs really shouldn’t be adding pitching this winter. Their focus should be on adding offense.
The good news is that the best-hitting free agent in almost 20 years has hit the market. I’m here to tell you that the Cubs should sign Bryce Harper.
Harper is the bat the Cubs need.
Bryce Harper came into the league with a lot of hype and with the exception of his MVP-winning 2015 campaign, he hasn’t really lived up to it. But blame the hype more than Harper. Harper has consistently been one of the best hitters in the National League in each of his first seven seasons in the major leagues. Yes, he’s known for his power and he does have that with 184 career home runs and a career slugging percentage of .487. But more importantly for the Cubs, Harper is an on-base machine. Harper has a career on-base percentage of .388, which is excellent. He led the majors with 130 walks in 2018.
Harper got a lot of attention early in the 2018 season for a rough first half where he only posted a .214 batting average. But that poor number was driven by a ridiculously-low batting-average-on-balls-in-play of .226. That was well-below his career BABIP total of .323 coming into the 2018 season. Even accounting for an increased use of the shift, that still indicates some terrible luck. But despite that, Harper still managed a .365 on-base percentage in the first half and a .468 slugging percentage, driven by the 23 home runs he hit before the All-Star Break.
In the second half, those numbers turned around dramatically. Harper’s babip skyrocketed to .378 and he posted a .300/.434/.538 line after the All-Star break. He finished the year at .249/.393/.496.
Over the past two seasons, Harper has posted an offensive WAR of over 4. He slumped a bit in 2016 and his 2015 season offensive bWAR was an insane 9.1. I don’t know that he’ll ever post that again, but he’s still likely to be a 4 to 5 win player for several years forward. Maybe some years he’ll be better than that. He turns 26 next week. Each point of WAR is worth over $10 million on the open market. Assuming the Cubs can sign Harper for less than $40 million a year (and I think they can), then Harper should be a net positive.
Harper also hits left-handed, which is important with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras all hitting from the right side. Anthony Rizzo hits from the left side, of course, but the only help Rizzo is getting on that side of the plate is the disappointing bat of Jason Heyward and the switch-hitting Ian Happ. Happ has been frustratingly inconsistent in his career so far.
I haven’t mentioned Kyle Schwarber. I’ll get to him later.
The Cubs also should sign Harper because they aren’t going to get any help on offense from their minor league system anytime soon. The Cubs probably don’t have a minor league hitter in their system who ends up as a major league regular who played above South Bend in 2018. The bats in South Bend, Eugene and in rookie ball are not only a long ways away, but none of them are safe bets to become impact hitters. The Cubs only real route to improve the offense is through free agency.
What about his contract?
I’m not advocating handing Harper a blank check and telling him to fill in the years and amounts. There is clearly a point in the bidding where the Cubs have to say “Sorry, we’re out.” But I’m going to assume that Harper is going to get a contract somewhere north of Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract. I’m guessing that Harper gets 10 years (with a few opt-outs) and between $340 and $370 million. I have no idea what the Cubs finances look like and what Tom Ricketts thinks the team can afford. But I’m saying that I think the Cubs can fit Harper in their salary structure at that level.
A 10-year deal with Harper would only take him through his age-35 season.
Here is the first rule about whatever Harper gets in his free agent contract: It’s not my money. It’s not yours either or anyone’s money but the Ricketts family’s. Don’t say “They’ll raise ticket prices to pay for it.” That’s not how any of this works. The Cubs will raise ticket prices if they think fans will pay for higher ticket prices whether they sign Harper or not.
There is really only one precedent for a free agent as talented as Harper coming on the market so young. That’s when a 24-year-old Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers after the 2000 season for 10 years and $250 million.
That Rodriguez deal with the Rangers was pilloried at the time and for years after that. That was ridiculous at the time and it’s ridiculous now. (It was also political as baseball was talking about contraction and salary caps back then.) But for all the talk about Rodriguez’s contract, A-Rod was terrific for the Rangers. The reason the Rangers continued to lose with the best player in the game on the team was that Rodriguez’s teammates were mostly bad. That’s not going to be an issue for Harper if he comes to Chicago. The Cubs already have a strong core of players that is still among the best in the National League. Harper just makes them even better.
People liked to blame Rodriguez’s contract for the Rangers struggles which again goes to a sports talk radio tendency at the time to blame the best player on the team for not having better teammates. If you want to blame someone’s contract, blame the five years and $65 million that Chan Ho Park was getting for a total of 1.2 WAR in his Rangers career. Or that a well-past his sell-by date Juan Gonzalez was getting $7.5 million a year. The point is that A-Rod wasn’t the reason the Rangers were bad.
A lot was made about Rodriguez’s contract at the time eating up about 20 to 25% of the Rangers payroll. I don’t know that makes much of a difference, but even if Harper signs for $37 million a year, he’s not going to eat up 20% of the Cubs payroll. Yes, the Cubs will have to pay the “luxury tax” under this plan, but that’s been the reason that all of these teams have been getting under the threshold in 2018. They’re trying to reset their payroll and that allows them to sign Harper or Manny Machado and pay the minimum tax rate going forward.
Now the extension the Yankees signed with Rodriguez after he opted out of the deal he signed with the Rangers? Yeah, that was a bad idea. Don’t sign players in their thirties to a 10-year deal. But it was the Yankees and it wasn’t like Rodriguez’s contract prevented them from signing any other player they wanted over the years. They also don’t win the 2009 World Series without Rodriguez, so maybe it was worth it for them to win one last title before The Boss passed.
I don’t want to get much into what Harper would mean for marketing the Cubs or how much more valuable a proposed Cubs TV network would be with Harper on the team. That’s something that would require a team of dedicated accountants to figure out. But let’s agree that Harper is one of the most marketable players in MLB. He’s one of the few who has a national TV endorsement deal. Harper would bring in more revenue to the Cubs to offset his salary. Maybe it’s only be a small amount. Maybe it’s more than that. I don’t know, but it’s something. Cubs TV ratings really probably can’t go a lot higher and it will only really drop if they start losing a lot again.
He wants to play for the Cubs.
I don’t want to make too much of this, but it bears mentioning. Harper has often expressed his admiration for the Cubs organization, Cubs fans and Wrigley Field. He certainly knows that the Cubs are a winner. Being teammates with his good friend Kris Bryant would also be a bonus, although there is no guarantee that Bryant will be around for all of a 10-year deal.
I don’t think the Cubs are the only team he wants to play for. I think if he had his choice, he’d stick with the Nationals, all other things being equal. But the Nats are unlikely to match what other teams offer.
Harper isn’t going to come to the Cubs like Andre Dawson in 1987 and hand them a blank contract. The Cubs offer is going to have to be in the same ballpark as the highest offer for him to come here. But having a free agent who is already buying in to The Cubs Way is a bonus both for him and the team.
Would he fit in with the Cubs clubhouse?
That’s just sports talk radio nonsense. He’s friends with Bryant and the only teammate that I know of that’s had a problem with Harper is Jonathan Papelbon and a lot of teammates had problems with Jonathan Papelbon throughout his career.
Is he a brash personality? Yes. So is Javier Baez. How does Javy fit in?
The Cubs can trade Kyle Schwarber.
Yeah, this one would hurt a little. But under my plan, Harper would likely play all three outfield positions with left field being the primary one. This would leave no room for Kyle Schwarber and a fan favorite would have to be sent packing.
But here’s the thing about Schwarber. He’s not a good left fielder. As much as Cubs fans like to defend his defense in left field from national writers who only see him play a few times a year, he’s really not good out there. Yes, he’s better than some make him out to be, but that’s a low bar to jump. He’s just not good out there and he should really be a 1B/DH in the American League. The Cubs should trade him now while his value is still high. They can deal Schwarber now to beef up their weak farm system or for a replacement for Addison Russell, who looks like he’s played his last game with the Cubs.
Wait a minute. What about Harper’s defense?
This is a good question and I admit it’s one that gives me pause. For the first six seasons of his career, Harper was an average center/right fielder with a rocket arm that in part made up for some possible deficiencies in his range. His defensive metrics through 2017 agreed. Some rated him a little above-average. Others ranked him as a little below. But around average.
This season, however, the defensive metrics on Harper have been brutal. I don’t watch Harper everyday, but from what I’ve read from those that do indicate that the metrics weren’t lying. Harper had a terrible season in the field in 2018.
The problem is that no one seems to know why. Some observers I read said he was getting a lot of bad reads, but I just don’t know. It certainly seems possible that he was taking his poor first half and his anxiety about his upcoming free agency into the field with him. It’s also possible that he was battling an injury. Harper does play hard and gets hurt a decent amount, although he’s played over 147 games in three of the past four seasons.
The bottom line is that there just isn’t a precedent of which I’m aware of a solid defender completely losing his ability at age 25 without some sort of underlying injury. I’m willing to assume that 2018 was just a defensive slump season unless someone demonstrates otherwise. I’m sure the minds in the Cubs analytics department would make a better determination on this before handing out a 10-year deal.
But the good news here is that in my plan, Harper plays a lot of left field, which is the easiest of the three positions to play. And he’s replacing Schwarber, so he’s very unlikely to be a defensive downgrade there. Eventually he may have to move to first base, but that’s a long way away and by that time Anthony Rizzo may be looking at moving on or retiring anyway.
What about Manny Machado instead?
Hey, I’ve got no problem with the Cubs signing Machado and he’s got a lifelong friend on the team in Albert Almora Jr. as well. Sign them both if the Ricketts wallet feels heavy. But Machado is simply not the same force on offense that Harper is. Machado’s career OBP is .335, and that’s not what the Cubs need on the basepaths for Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and company. They need someone with the strong on-base skills of Harper. On top of that, Machado is right-handed and a shortstop/third baseman and the Cubs already have Bryant and Baez there. Yes, Machado could play short and Baez could move back to second, but then the Cubs are weakening their defense at short and leaving Schwarber in left field.
If the Cubs’ goal is to win the World Series every year (and that should be their goal), then the best way to do that is to put as many of the best players on field as possible. The Cubs don’t have the farm system at the moment that could produce an impact bat or be traded for one. The only real option is to go through free agency and if you do that, you should try to sign the best player available. That player is Bryce Harper.