Well, now there’s a provocative headline. The Chicago Cubs are once again poised to be a very good team in 2018. They are coming off three straight postseason appearances, two consecutive division titles and are just one year removed from being defending World Series champions. They’ve got a former MVP on the squad, a topnotch rotation and a deep bullpen, and most of the players who are on the 2018 team will also be around at least one more year.
Why do they need Bryce Harper, then? First, here’s a look at the probable Opening Day roster for this year’s Cubs and their contract status. (For now, I’m assuming Eddie Butler gets the last bullpen spot. Whoever gets it is likely to be under team control for at least next year.)
Yu Darvish: signed through 2023, opt-out after 2019
Jon Lester: signed through 2020, team option for 2021
Jose Quintana: signed through 2018, team options for 2019 & 2020 (that will almost certainly be exercised)
Kyle Hendricks: arb-eligible 2019 & 2020, free agent after 2020
Tyler Chatwood: signed through 2020
Brandon Morrow: signed through 2019, team option for 2020
Steve Cishek: signed through 2019
Pedro Strop: signed through 2018, team option for 2019
Brian Duensing: signed through 2019
Mike Montgomery: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, free agent after 2021
Justin Wilson: signed through 2018
Carl Edwards Jr.: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, free agent after 2022
Eddie Butler: arb-eligble 2020, 2021, 2022, free agent after 2022
Anthony Rizzo: signed through 2019, team options for 2020 and 2021 (that will almost certainly be exercised)
Javier Baez: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, free agent after 2021
Addison Russell: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, free agent after 2022
Kris Bryant: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, free agent after 2021
Ben Zobrist: signed through 2019
Tommy La Stella: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, free agent after 2020
Kyle Schwarber: arb-eligible 2019, 2020, 2021, free agent after 2021
Albert Almora Jr.: not arb-eligible until 2020, free agent after 2022
Jason Heyward: signed through 2023, opt-out after 2018 (which will probably not be exercised)
Ian Happ: not arb-eligible until 2021, free agent after 2023
Willson Contreras: not arb-eligible until 2020, free agent after 2022
Chris Gimenez: on minor-league deal (will be added to 40-man), likely a free agent after 2018
The Cubs’ release of Justin Grimm saved them all but $540,000 of his 2018 salary and someone else (probably Eddie Butler, as noted above) should get that last bullpen slot. It’s possible the Cubs will decide to keep Victor Caratini to back up Willson Contreras, but I think the club values a veteran backup and would rather have Caratini play every day at Triple-A Iowa, so Chris Gimenez will likely stick around. The release of Grimm opened a spot on the 40-man, which makes room for Gimenez.
As you can see above, virtually all of the 25 players above are under contract through at least 2019. Only Justin Wilson is a free agent.
And with Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Carl Edwards Jr. and Javier Baez coming into their first year of arbitration in 2019, the payroll is likely going to increase significantly, not to mention arb raises due to Kris Bryant, Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery (if MiMo isn’t traded, which is a possibility).
Rob Huff, at The Athletic, has the Cubs’ 2018 total payroll obligations at about $194 million. Personally, I think that’s a little bit high, as the team likely wants to leave some room open for a midseason acquisition and still stay under the luxury tax limit of $197 million. After the pre-arb players were all signed as of March 11, my estimate for 2018 is about $184 million, leaving about $12 million open for mid-season acquisitions.
We’ve discussed that limit frequently here, and the pros and cons of staying under it for 2018. There’s no doubt that Cubs ownership can afford to go over, if they so choose. They have chosen not to for 2018. Several other teams (Dodgers, Yankees in particular) have also made that choice.
It’s been assumed that one of the reasons for that choice is to “reset” their luxury tax penalties so that they can go over for next year’s free-agent class, which includes not only Harper, but Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and possibly Clayton Kershaw, if the latter opts out and doesn’t reach an extension agreement with the Dodgers.
So let’s circle back to Harper. Why do the Cubs need him? Because he’s one of the best hitters in the game and is reaching free agency at 26, younger than almost any star of his talent. (Jason Heyward, widely considered the top player when he reached free agency after 2015, was also 26 at that time, which is why the Cubs offered him the contract they did. He’s been a disappointment offensively, but his defense and leadership make his deal worth it, in my view.)
The Cubs, then, presuming they are willing to blast through the 2019 luxury tax limit of $206 million, could easily afford Harper, who’s likely going to get a deal similar to Heyward’s in length, though probably worth $30 million in AAV. The Cubs will shed Ben Zobrist’s contract after 2019, which would help in terms of paying for Harper.
MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand has the Cubs as one of six teams in contention for Harper’s services beginning next year, but notes:
The biggest potential obstacle? Jason Heyward is signed to play right field for the Cubs through 2023, a deal that will pay him $106 million between ‘19-23.
Since Heyward isn’t likely opting out of his deal, where would Harper play? Signing Harper might mean dealing Kyle Schwarber to an American League team. It seems likely that with all the players coming through the arbitration system, that one or more might be dealt for prospects in order to restock the farm system, which has dropped in ranking since graduating several excellent players to the major leagues. Harper could play left field, or Heyward could move to left or center with Harper in right.
Signing Bryce Harper to a longterm contract would also help the Cubs keep their window of contention open. He’s younger than most of the current core, except for Baez and Contreras, and would give a strong offense even more firepower. Let’s put aside for the moment the supposed friendship between Harper and Bryant, just because they are both from Las Vegas, played high school ball against each other and have been seen together at hockey games:
If Harper does sign with the Cubs, got to get those guys Blackhawks jerseys, though the Golden Knights are certainly the trendy team in the NHL these days.
Don’t talk to Harper about this, though; here’s what he said last month about his impending free agency:
“I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019 at all,” Harper said, wearing a Nats cap backward and reading prepared opening remarks from his phone. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call [agent] Scott [Boras] and he can answer you guys. ... If you guys do talk anything about that, then I’ll be walking right out the door.”
It’s fine for Harper to not talk about this; I get that completely. He wants to focus on his 2018 season. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it, though.
As I have said here before: I accept the Cubs’ staying under the luxury tax limit for 2018 if it means opening the purse strings and signing Bryce Harper for 2019 and beyond. The Cubs ought to do this in order to keep up with “the big boys,” even though it’s also true that spending the most money doesn’t guarantee you championships.
But in modern baseball, you have to be willing to commit to getting the best players, and if that costs more, the Cubs ought to do it. Beyond the money, acquiring Harper would put them at the top echelon of big-league teams for the next six to eight years. After 108 years of drought, I’d like to see the Cubs a powerhouse, and adding Harper to an already formidable lineup, especially since he will enter the 2019 season at age 26, could extend the Cubs championship window.
The Cubs are now one of the “big boys” in baseball. They’ll need to start spending like it.