Will Bryce Harper Sign with the Chicago Cubs?

by Taylor Smith
on October 5, 2018

2018 was a weird year for Bryce Harper. I guess it’s still technically 2018, but you know what I mean. Most importantly, Harper and the Washington Nationals missed the playoffs this season for just the third time in his 7-year career. The Nats entered the season with all sorts of World Series hype, yet their season ended without having even nabbed a Wild Card spot. This was the most disappointing team in baseball, bar none.

Harper’s individual struggles definitely played a role in the Nationals’ inability to get over the hump. Frankly, he just didn’t look like himself in the first half of the season. The former National League MVP entered the All-Star break in July with a slash line of .214/.365/.468. That’s an incredibly low batting average for a guy with the reputation as one of the game’s most fearsome hitters. He had an unusually high strikeout rate nearing 25 percent, as well. Harper did have 23 home runs at the break, but he was doing little other than hitting for some power and drawing plenty of walks.

After the break, though, Harper started to look like the Harper of old. Over the course of 281 plate appearances after the break, Harper slashed .300/.434/.538. Now that’s more like it.

Harper’s service clock with the Nationals has expired. The 25-year-old will hit the free agent market this winter with his prime years still ahead of him. Very few players get the chance to test the waters of free agency this young, so Harper is setting himself up to get paid. Anything under $200 million for this guy will be a legitimate shock. A contract north of $300 million isn’t off the table, either.

Last winter’s crop of free agents had to wait quite a while to find new homes, due in large part to the fact that many teams were sitting on their cash and waiting for the 2018 free agent class to come through. Harper will be joined by Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and a host of other appealing free agents this winter. Money will be spent. Much of it will be spent on Harper.

Where will Harper wind up? This will be the top storyline of the winter, so why not start looking ahead? Below are the updated odds for where Harper will sign as a free agent, with a surprising team atop the list:

  • Chicago Cubs EVEN
  • Los Angeles Dodgers +500
  • Philadelphia Phillies +550
  • New York Yankees +600
  • Washington Nationals +700
  • Boston Red Sox +1100
  • Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim +1200
  • San Francisco Giants +1600

Can the Nationals Keep Harper?

After the Nationals’ last home game of the regular season, Harper told the media, “This is my home. This is my city. Being able to come here – of course I root for the Golden Knights, and I root for Duke and I root for the Cowboys and things like that – but I’m a Washington National. At the end of the day, I love this city. I enjoy coming here. I enjoy playing here. And that’s what it’s all about.”

After the Rockies’ season ended a few days later in Colorado, Harper posted a photo on Instagram with the caption, “To the fans and the city of DC, thank you!”

Hmm…

Is Harper bidding farewell to the only big league fan base he has ever known? Or is he simply acknowledging that there is a real chance he leaves without actually closing the door on remaining with the Nationals? The first quote sounds almost encouraging for the Nationals’ chances of keeping him, but the Instagram post a few days later sounds like more of a real goodbye.

We obviously have no idea what to make of this. The Nationals aren’t one of those cash-cow franchises like the Dodgers, Yankees or Red Sox that just prints money. If Washington is going to fork over the cash it will require to keep him in red and white, one would imagine the Nats will have to make sacrifices elsewhere on the roster. A couple of years ago a report surfaced that claimed the Nationals were turned off by Harper’s insistence that it would take a 10-year deal worth $400 million to keep him around. There’s no telling whether that report was legitimate or not, but murmurs throughout the season have indicated that Harper isn’t necessarily a lock to leave the nation’s capital.

I feel like Harper will, indeed, find a new team this winter. Washington would certainly prefer to keep him, but I think some of the bigger-money teams are going to essentially force Harper’s hand. The Nationals make for a pretty solid value bet here at +700 to keep him, but that feels like a long shot at this point. I would say Washington is worth a flier bet, but I definitely wouldn’t go all-in on that by any means.

Cubs Favored

After the Cubs were beaten 2-1 by the Rockies in the NL Wild Card Game, fans and reporters rushed to try and project what the team should do this winter to get back into World Series contention. It looked as though the Cubs were primed for a potential dynasty when they won the 2016 championship, but the two years since have been rather uninspired. Losing back-to-back winner-take-all games on your home field is a sign that something is amiss.

The Cubs have confirmed that Joe Maddon will be back as manager in 2019. GM Theo Epstein hasn’t been conservative in the least when it comes to spending money on free agents in recent years. The Jon Lester signing definitely worked out, but some of his other calls have been questionable. The Jason Heyward contract has been an unmitigated disaster, while Yu Darvish made just 8 starts this past season after the Cubs paid him over $120 million last winter. Jose Quintana has also not pitched up to paper since the Cubs traded for him halfway through the 2017 season. Tyler Chatwood, whom the Cubs paid nearly $40 million to sign last winter, was one of the worst starters in baseball in 2018.

The Cubs could use a bat of Harper’s caliber, to be sure. Chicago mustered just 2 runs total in the aforementioned games earlier this week against the Brewers and Rockies. The lineup looks formidable on paper, but we saw the Cubs limp their way through ugly offensive stretches all season long. After finishing third in baseball in runs scored (808) during their title-winning 2016 campaign, the Cubs finished ninth in that department (761) in 2018. The Cubs scored zero or one runs in 40 games this year. 40!

Considering the team’s championship window is open right now, I would expect the Cubs to be aggressive in seeking one of the big bats on the market this winter. That means either Harper or Machado. Anthony Rizzo is one of the best hitting first basemen in baseball. Kris Bryant is an MVP-caliber player when healthy. For much of 2018, he was not. Javier Baez emerged as the team’s best overall hitter in 2018, but the Cubs are still waiting on guys like Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ to bust out.

The Cubs can’t wait any longer. The rest of the National League has caught up, so it’s going to take another dramatic step for Chicago to remain afloat in what is increasingly becoming a deep NL Central. Adding a bat of Harper’s prowess would go a long way toward galvanizing what was too often a dormant lineup this season.

I like Chicago quite a bit in the Harper sweepstakes. They still have money to burn, and Epstein won’t let this window close so quickly after the team reached the top of the mountain. I’d bet on the Cubs now before the odds start trending into the negatives here.

If Not Chicago, then Where?

The Cubs may be the current favorites to land Harper’s signature in a few months, but they won’t be alone in their pursuit. You can expect the line to form to the left when it comes to teams that would have interest in backing the Brinks truck up to Harper’s door.

The Dodgers will be an interesting team to watch this winter. As was the case with the Cubs, the Dodgers worked last winter to get under the luxury tax threshold, which will allow them to spend some money this offseason. Most believed the team’s maneuvers came with Harper in mind, but one would imagine the Dodgers would prefer Manny Machado at this point.

The Dodgers made a trade to get Machado from the Orioles during the regular season. They obviously did this with the hopes that bringing him in would help the team in their World Series chase this season, but I doubt Los Angeles would have parted ways with what they did just to rent Machado for a few months. I believe the Dodgers made the trade with plans to hopefully sign him to a new long-term deal after the end of the season. If the Dodgers go hard after Machado, I doubt they would also make a serious run at Harper. A lot can change between now and then, but Machado looks like the preferred option for L.A. So, I’ll write off the Dodgers at +500 when it comes to Harper here.

The Dodgers’ neighbors to the south are an interesting team to watch. The clock is ticking on Mike Trout’s time in Anaheim. The game’s best player has still yet to win a playoff game over the course of his career, and the Angels missed out on the postseason yet again this season. The Angels have approached the offseason aggressively in recent years, but it hasn’t yet amounted to much team success. Adding Shohei Ohtani last winter was a big step, but this team is still far from a legit contender.

Adding a big bat like Harper would close the gap on the Astros at the top of the AL West. I still think most of the Angels’ problems are on the pitching side of things, but making a move for a player of Harper’s caliber would at least show Trout that the Angels are serious about winning as soon as possible. The Halos make for an interesting flier at +1200, but I wouldn’t say they’re a frontrunner by any means.

The Giants are interesting. San Francisco parted ways with its general manager after another failed campaign. The Giants have an older roster as it stands, and at this point they’re nowhere close to contending with teams like the Dodgers, Rockies or Diamondbacks in their division. San Francisco has been maligned by a punchless lineup for a few years now, so they could definitely use a Harper in the middle of the lineup.

The Giants do have some money to burn, but they feel like a fringe candidate here. I think the Angels in the same price range make more sense from a betting perspective.

The Red Sox spent big money to sign J.D. Martinez last winter, and they don’t have a glaring need in the lineup at this point. Ditto for the Yankees after trading for Giancarlo Stanton and his massive contract. I think the Yankees’ decision to get Stanton will likely take them out of the running for Harper. I don’t like either AL East team as a likely Harper destination.

The Phillies at +550 are a team to watch. Philadelphia spent a good chunk of the season in first place in the NL East before a late collapse. The Phils have one of the younger rosters in all of baseball, and adding a player like Harper would potentially put them over the top. The Phillies are another big market team with deep pockets, so I expect them to be in on the Harpers and Machados in the winter.

The Phillies make for an interesting landing spot, but all signs as of now point to Harper winding up in the Windy City. Here is how I’ll rank Harper’s potential destinations:

  1. Chicago Cubs EVEN
  2. Washington Nationals +700
  3. Philadelphia Phillies +550
  4. Los Angeles Angels +1200
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers +500
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