Once the odds-on favorites to land Bryce Harper, the Cubs have fallen back to the point that they don’t even merit mention in most public conversation of his landing spot. Some of that could well be by design, but most of it is a function of their words and actions presenting a pretty clear picture of their intentions.
Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney — Sahadrick Sharmooney? — of The Athletic combined for an extensive look (subscriptions make a wonderful gift) at everything that has led up to this point and what remains as the Cubs head for the “reckoning” of the coming season. Both writers have remained highly skeptical of the Cubs’ pursuit of Harper since word of budget constraints first surfaced. This latest piece, however, offers a smidge of hope.
The Cubs have held high-level discussions about a Harper pursuit, sketched out trade possibilities in an attempt to clear salary and maintained a dialogue with super-agent Scott Boras. At least one team involved in the Harper talks has believed the Cubs are a factor. Epstein’s legendary reputation as a dealmaker persists to the point where we won’t totally rule out the Cubs as a possibility until Harper is at the podium at Dodger Stadium or putting on a White Sox hat at the press conference or saying how much he always wanted to play for whatever mystery team.
Reports of the Cubs’ interest have varied over the last month, as have interpretations of them. They’re either lying in the weeds or mowing the lawn, engaged in a “submarine race” or pouring cold water on expectations. No matter how you’ve been viewing this thing, there can be no doubt that the Cubs aren’t completely out on Harper. Whether they’re completely in, though, that remains to be seen.
The trade scenarios would likely center around Jason Heyward, whose $23 million AAV contract would offset a good chunk of Harper’s salary even if the Cubs had to eat money to make it work. The Giants were rumored to be interested in a deal last year when Heyward had a full no-trade clause and was coming off of a terrible offensive performance. It makes sense that the two teams could circle back this winter, though we’re talking about a whole factory of moving parts.
Ben Zobrist is another possibility being thrown out there, as his leadership and strong bounceback performance would make him attractive enough for the Cubs to move his whole salary. But Zobrist is also a clubhouse leader and valuable contact hitter. Plus he’s only got one more year left and would offer nothing in the way of long-term salary relief.
You’ve also got Tyler Chatwood, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Kyle Schwarber as potential pieces to be moved, though none represents the kind of appreciable savings needed to grease the wheels for a Harper deal. Chatwood is making good money, sure, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Cubs are able to jettison him without maintaining most of his contractual obligation.
When it comes to the other team(s) believing the Cubs are a factor, that isn’t a stretch at all. Jon Heyman has reported that Harper is not at all keen on Philadelphia and Cubs Insider has been told Harper actually prefers the Cubs. Circumstantial evidence would seem to confirm those thoughts, as the Phils signed Andrew McCutchen during the Winter Meetings and there’s a sense that Harper is waiting for some other things to fall into place.
Of course, that could mean he’s actually waiting on the Dodgers to clear payroll and roster space by trading away some outfielders. Or that he wants Manny Machado to sign first and set the bar. The two top free agents have a great deal of overlap in their prospective teams, so maybe Scott Boras is hoping to extract more money from one of the bridesmaids as it were.
While Sharmooney is/are deliberate about tamping down expectations, it’s clear the rumors and innuendo aren’t going away until we find out Harper signed with another team. And even that may not be enough. I mean, remember what happened with Dexter Fowler and the Orioles? Wouldn’t that be the troll job of all troll jobs and the perfect cherry on top of the sundae Harper has been building on social media for the last year or more?