Bryce Harper to the Cubs? His personal connections to Chicago could make it happen

Ryan Wormeli
NBC Sports Washington

Winter has been coming for quite a while for the Washington Nationals. Specifically, Winter 2018. And much like last season of HBO's beloved Game of Thrones, winter has finally arrived.

Bryce Harper has potentially played his final game in a Nationals uniform, and all fans can do over the course of the next few months is play the waiting game. Instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs, however, we're going to take a look at some of the major players who will be active in Harper's free agency this winter.

We'll do our best to gauge how genuine each team's interest in the superstar is (spoiler alert: they are all very interested) and try to guess how good their chances are of landing him. 

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Bovada updated their odds on Harper's ultimate landing spot after the regular season ended, and they've got the Nationals as the fifth-most likely team for him to (re)join.

Number one on that list? The Chicago Cubs.

The Narrative

It may come as a surprise, as the Cubs have a reputation for growing young, star position players on trees and therefore may not have an obvious need for another outfielder. But there are a few signs pointing towards the "lovable losers" (a fairly outdated nickname, by the way) as one of the favorites.

We'll just go ahead and address a few of these right off the bat.

NBC Sports Chicago helpfully listed a number of examples of Harper's flirtation with the Cubs a year ago, and many points remain just as strong today.

My personal favorite sign of his affinity for the North Siders? His dog is named after their iconic home ballpark, Wrigley Field. I once joked in a wedding toast that the groom was such a huge Cubs fan, the bride should be prepared to name their first dog "Wrigley." (Fun fact: I was proven right earlier this year.)

Your dog is a part of your family, and naming a family member something so unambiguously pro-Cubs can only come across one way. It's a telling sign, maybe not of Harper's ultimate intentions, but at least of where a part of his heart lies.

I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying.

Doubling down on the Wrigley love, Harper has mentioned multiple times how much he loves the Friendly Confines. He's also taken pictures wearing Chicago Bulls gear, and attended a Golden Knights-Blackhawks game and didn't wear Vegas gear. As a reminder, Las Vegas-native Bryce Harper wore his Golden Knights sweater quite proudly during the Stanley Cup Final last season when they took on the Washington Capitals.

I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying.

It's clear he enjoys the Windy City, but that's not his only connection to the franchise. One of the faces of the Cubs is star third baseman Kris Bryant, who also grew up in the Las Vegas area and started playing baseball with Harper as adolescents. The two are very close friends, and their wives have also become quite close. 

Kayla Harper and Jessica Bryant even posted a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #HarperToTheCubs. Social media has played a key role in these rumors, and Harper himself once posted a photo with Bryant and their wives with the caption #Back2BackOneDay.

I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying.

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The Roster

Of course, there are other factors at play beyond conspiracy theories and rooting interests. The actual state of the team, in terms of finances and roster construction, is extremely relevant. Let's take a look at the outlook for the team over the next couple of seasons.

The Cubs really started competing in 2015, though that was considered "a year early," so the relevant window of looking at their salaries begins in the World Series year of 2016. According to Spotrac, the Cubs' payroll has hovered in the $170 million to $200 million range since that season, reaching a high point of $194 million this past season. 

It's generally fair to assume any competitive team's payroll will raise each season, especially a team as public and, frankly, rich as the Cubs. Chicago is obviously a major market, and it seems clear that the franchise can move into the $200M+ range in the coming years. This will happen regardless of whether or not they land Harper, as most of their best talents are young and will be entering arbitration and, more importantly, free agency of their own the coming years.

Spotrac has about $180 million committed for 2019 already, about a $40 million difference from Baseball Reference that can probably be explained by expected arbitration salaries.

So, to make a long, financially complicated story short, the Cubs have a lot of money invested into the team, but are still very much in their competitive window and have close-to-bottomless pockets. So, while Harper would give them their highest payroll ever, they can afford it, and may end up viewing it as an opportunity to invest in Harper instead of another one of their young stars a few years down the line, which could be a smart long-term play if they don't mind 1-2 seasons of an inordinately high payroll.

Since the money is theoretically workable, the next thing to look at is the actual roster construction. Will the Cubs have room for Harper on the field? Remember, because the Cubs play in the National League, they won't have the luxury of hiding one of their sluggers in a DH spot, meaning there really is only room for three outfielders.

MLB.com's official depth chart for the Cubs lists Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Jayson Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Terrance Gore as the team's outfielders.

Bryant is obviously primarily an infielder, and Zobrist and Happ are utility players best suited to the infield. It's important to note that manager Joe Maddon likes to move his players around, so they will find themselves patrolling the outfield on occasion, but it's not their preferred positions. Gore is clearly a backup on the team for his pinch-running abilities, and he certainly wouldn't be a block on a guy like Harper.

That leaves Schwarber (the guy who could really use a DH spot), Almora, and Heyward.

Almora is a former top-10 pick, so he comes with a lot of pedigree, and has proven himself a terrific young defensive center fielder. I've long been a big fan of his, and the fact that he's not just pre-free agency but pre-arbitration means he is exceedingly affordable for a payroll in need of cheap talent. He's the center fielder of the future and is a valuable piece that shouldn't be moved. 

Of the Cubs payroll committed for 2019 already, $20 million of the $22 million is committed to Heyward, who remains a fantastic defender who has inexplicably fallen off with the bat since his days in Atlanta. Given the ways he can still contribute and the money committed to him through 2023, it's pretty unlikely he gets replaced by Harper.

That leaves Schwarber, who is young and controllable, not to mention a pretty great power bat in his own right, though again, someone who would really benefit from a universal DH. 

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From the Cubs' perspective, it comes down to whether or not they're willing to turn Schwarber into a part-time player.

A Harper-Almora-Heyward outfield would definitely represent an upgrade both defensively and offensively, and instantly becomes one of the most complete outfields in baseball. Not to mention a Baez-Bryant-Harper-Rizzo (in some order) middle of the lineup would easily be the most fearsome foursome in the National League. Having Schwarber's power off the bench would be a dangerous late-inning weapon as well.

If they're A) willing to commit the money for the next two seasons before their homegrown players start to get prohibitively expensive and B) are willing to trade Schwarber or bring him off the bench (and again, Maddon is notorious for finding creative ways to move guys in and out of the lineup and get everyone at-bats), then Harper makes a lot of sense for a team looking to capitalize on what is generally considered an open National League over the next few seasons. 

Once the Braves and Padres' young talent are fully realized, it will become that much harder to make the World Series out of the Senior Circuit, so now is the time to strike for the Chicago. It looks like there's mutual interest between the two parties, and the Cubs are one of the only franchises who can realistically afford Harper's undoubtedly massive asking price. 

The Odds

Ultimately, the even odds the Cubs are getting feel a bit too strong to me, if only because there are other teams out there with money to spend, designs on competing, and a more obvious fit in the field for Harper. Still, if I had to set the odds myself, I'd almost certainly have the Cubs as one of the 3 biggest favorites, if not the biggest. The difference, however, is not quite as big as Bovada's "Even vs +500 and beyond" odds would have you believe.

Harper famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, and he was referred to as baseball's answer to LeBron. He may not have reached LeBron's "one of the five best players ever to play his sport" level just yet, but there's an interesting quote in that 2009 profile. When asked about his goals for his baseball career, among other things, Harper says "play in the pinstripes."

Considering he also lists "playing in Yankee Stadium" and is a Duke, Cowboys, and Lakers fan, it's easy to assume he was referring to the Yankees' iconic uniforms.

But you know who else wears pinstripes? The Chicago Cubs. 

I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying.

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