The Chicago Cubs were for years considered the favorites to sign Bryce Harper once he reached free agency. There were myriad reasons to connect the dots: Harper and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant are longtime friends; Harper and his wife have a dog named Wrigley; and c’mon, it just makes sense. The Cubs are the third-most valuable franchise in baseball — of course they’d chase after one of the most desired free agents in recent memory.
If the Cubs are indeed in on Harper at this point, then give them credit for running a wicked misdirection campaign. Recently, the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the Cubs were having troubles fitting a free-agent reliever like Adam Warren into their budget. Those limitations would make signing a prized free agent like Harper tough to navigate, if not downright impossible.
On Tuesday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon added more water to the fire by answering a fan’s question about Harper at the team’s annual fan convention. Spoiler: Maddon said no chance (glove tap to the wonderful Chris Cwik).
You can reason that Maddon’s answer is empty calories. Even if the Cubs were pursuing Harper, they wouldn’t announce it to the world. But at some point it’s probably time to accept that the Cubs are genuinely unlikely to spend on Harper or any other high-cost player for that matter.
Would it make baseball sense for the Cubs to add Harper? Absolutely. Maddon is expected to trot out an outfield that includes some combination of Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Ben Zobrist. Even if you reject Harper playing center, he’s a superior hitter to Heyward and Schwarber, and probably no worse of a fielder than the latter.
None of that seems likely to matter though. The Cubs’ only big addition of the winter has been utilityman Daniel Descalso. While Chicago’s payroll is expected to check in around $200 million, a new franchise record, it’s hard to believe the Cubs are strapped for cash. Again, this is the third-most valuable franchise in baseball with one of the biggest brands in sports, American or otherwise. Back in 2015, the Ricketts family had an estimated net worth exceeding $4 billion. The Cubs would have to pay luxury tax penalties to sign Harper, but uh … does it matter, really?
The answer seems to be that it does matter to those calling the shots for the Cubs — the same way it seems to matter more than wins and losses these days to every owner in baseball.