The Cubs are Still Favorites for Bryce Harper

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We are just now coming off the Yu Darvish news. Yes, the Chicago Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year $126 million contract on Friday night [Reddit link]. Some Cubs fans are concerned that Darvish’s contract will limit what the Cubs can do in future seasons, and most importantly how they can sign one of the big name free agents in the 2019 class.

Cubs payroll

The Cubs will enter the 2019 offseason with a payroll around $133 million. Then there will be arbitration increases, I would expect Kris Bryant to push the second-year arbitration record, Addison Russell should get a modest raise, Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, and Kyle Schwarber should earn modest raises as well. This should put the Cubs total payroll in the neighborhood of $162 million, leaving around $35 million to spend under the luxury tax.

Now, it has been widely expected that 2019 is the year the Cubs will go over the luxury tax. Seeing that the first year penalty is only 20% on the dollar if the Cubs jump over the tax threshold by around $20 million in 2019, it would result in a tax payment of only around $4 million.

Internally, the Cubs don’t have many players to replace. The only real free agent is newly acquired, Chris Gimenez, and he was signed to a minor league contract with no guarantees to be on the roster. This means the Cubs will likely waltz into the 2019 free agency period with a rather large checkbook.

2020 outlook and beyond

The Cubs 2020 economic state gets even better for the club. You would expect that 2019 will be the last season as Cubs for Ben Zobrist and Steve Cishek. 2019 could also be the last season for Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing as well. The five potential Cubs free agents in 2020 have a combined $29.5 million salary attached to them.

Their projected payroll (sans any 2019 additions and arbitration increases) will be around $80 million. Of course, the Cubs will pick up options on Jose Quintana ($11.5 million), Anthony Rizzo ($16.5 million), and likely Brandon Morrow ($12 million). They will likely toss out another $41.5 million in arbitration increases, bringing their total payroll to around $164.5 million.

If we play this out further, the Cubs have an expected $154 million on their 2021 books. Then an even smaller amount dedicated to their 2022 books, $119 million.

2021 is the beginning of when the current Cubs will hit free agency. Kyle Hendricks, Tyler Chatwood, Tommy La Stella, Quintana, and Morrow will all be set to enter free agency. The in 2022, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Mike Montgomery, and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents. There is no way the Cubs can retain them all. They can only hope to buy off a couple of these guys on team friendly deals, and suck it up and pay on some of the others.

The Cubs project to be well under the luxury tax in each of these seasons. Even adding a deal with a $30-$40 million AAV to the mix doesn’t change much at all.

Luxury Tax

Here is the luxury tax breakdown over the next several years.

Via Wikipedia

The penalties for going over the tax are 20% for the first time offense, 30% for a second time offense, and 50% for each additional offense. If a team drops under the tax for a year, it all resets. Let’s just say a team goes over the tax by $5 million and does so three consecutive seasons. The first season they are fined $1 million, the next year $1.5, and the third season they are fined $2.5 million.

Cubs have obvious increases in current roster salaries over the next several seasons. They will likely add a player here or there as well. I mean when was the last time the Cubs didn’t add at least a relief pitcher? It isn’t wrong to guess the 2019 Cubs will carry a $210 million payroll if they signed a big name. Then in 2020 you can expect that payroll to be in that same range if they match dollar-for-dollar for the guys that leave.

At these numbers, the Cubs would be charged $800,0000 in 2019 and $600,000 in 2020.

2021 begins soon to get cloudy. Yu can opt out (potentially), Bryant’s last year of arbitration will likely push him over $20 million. There are interesting arb cases for Baez, Russell, Schwarber, Hendricks, Contreras, and Almora. They will have Morrow and Duensing off the books. They may even elect to buy out Lester’s final year. A lot of this is by design, freeing up as much money as possible to re-sign a lot of those same guys in 2022.

In any event, looking at the payrolls it seems more likely the Cubs will make a huge splash next offseason. Regardless of how good you are today, teams have to continue getting better. All teams will try to get better, and the 2019 free agent class offers the most impactful class in ages.

Impactful free agents

So I hope we have established that the Cubs will have some coin to operate over the next several years. Even with the Yu Darvish contract, which has an opt-out after his second year, the Cubs are in a pretty position going into next year’s free agency.

The top names in 2019 will be Manny Machado, Dallas KeuchelJosh DonaldsonAndrew McCutchenClayton Kershaw (can opt-out), Craig KimbrelAndrew Miller, and Bryce Harper.

Now, there has been a lot of people talking about Harper joining the Chicago Cubs. Some see it as a pipedream. Others see it as Kris Bryant and Harper just clowning around. But, this is a real thing that can (and likely will) happen.

Unless the Washington Nationals do something extremely huge in 2018, I would expect Harper to leave. Sure Scott Boras (Harper’s agent) has a great relationship with the Nationals, but Harper’s deal will be too big for them to not go to free agency. Once he is on the open market, his price tag will skyrocket. But there are a couple of things that help the Cubs in a potential pursuit.

The first is Bryant’s friendship with Bryce. But it goes beyond that, their wives like each other, they grew up together, they’ve played baseball together for a long while. It really does appear to be a dream of theirs to play together. The Cubs are certainly willing to make that happen.

Competing Teams

They will likely get some help too. The Yankees will likely sit out on the talks for Bryce. They have Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton manning the corner outfield spots. None of the three are centerfielders, and while they can likely have one DH they have others that will likely DH as well. It is more likely that the Yankees chase Machado next offseason. Currently, they have Miguel Andujar slotted in as their third baseman, a man with seven careers at-bats.

The Boston Red Sox are still favorites to land JD Martinez this offseason and they have Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. covering left and center. If they do not sign Martinez (they have a reported five-year, $120 MM offer) then, of course, they can wait it out with Mookie Betts in 2018 and jump into the Harper discussion in 2019.

The Philadelphia Phillies are intriguing. They are an up-and-coming team with an interesting roster. The Phillies have a $70 million payroll and are the ninth most valuable franchise in the game. They very possibly may have the most money to spend, and cannot be underestimated in their pursuit of any free agent.

The LA Dodgers will likely jump into the party as well. LA has Yasiel Puig in right field and Chris Taylor in centerfield. Puig is a much better fielder than Harper, but he could shift to center and Taylor shifts to left. Then all it will take is Dodger dollars. LA could be very attractive to Bryce since it is about an hour plane ride to his hometown in Vegas.

Cubs Chances

The Cubs front office best pitch is the opportunity to win a World Series. Thing is, NY, LA, Washington, and the Boston have that same sales pitch. They don’t have the chance to get Bryce to accept less to come to Chicago to break the championship draught any longer. Their pitch is similar to that of the GM of those other great franchises. So it becomes about dollars and cents and who can sell their organizations best. Which of course, that will likely end up being Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

Theo and Jed have won just about every single free agent they have decided to go hard after. Looking back to Jon Lester, then Jason Heyward, and Yu Darvish.

What all of those other teams don’t have is Kris Bryant. People can’t underestimate how much Bryant can sway Bryce’s thoughts on where to end up. I’m not talking about the whole, they’re friends, and the buddies want to play with each other. I am talking Bryant will be able to tell Bryce how it is in Chicago. He will be able to sell Bryce on the Cubs more than any executive, video, steak dinners, or whatever else teams do to court prospective free agents.

This about it, are you more willing or less willing to do something when a close friend recommends it? Kris knows the Cubs organization on an intimate level, and he knows Bryce and his family on a close and personal level.

If Bryce does leave Washington, and there is a lot of indication that he will, then I expect him to land in Chicago. In fact, I would say the Cubs are the favorite to land Bryce Harper.


*Featured pic via Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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