Bryce Harper

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Levine: Cubs-Bryce Harper Union Makes Great Sense

Harper will be the premier free agent on the market this winter.

Bruce Levine
October 23, 2018 - 4:15 pm
Categories: 

(670 The Score) A future marriage between superstar outfielder Bryce Harper and the Cubs seems inevitable.

After a significant season-long downturn in power and second-half run production dip resulted in an exit in the wild-card round, Chicago parted ways with hitting coach Chili Davis and hired Anthony Iapoce in his place in hopes of revitalizing the offense. While that's a first step, the fail-safe would be to add a potent bat and run producer like the 26-year-old Harper in free agency, as plenty of uncertainty persists about some of the Cubs' young core.

As president of baseball operations Theo Epstein mentioned at an end-of-season press conference, it may be time to start judging the Cubs' hitters on their production instead of their potential. Kyle Schwarber is a .228 hitter for his career. Willson Contreras is coming off a campaign in which he hit .239 with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and a .730 OPS in 138 games. Ian Happ had 462 plate appearances last season, and 387 resulted in official at-bats. He produced 90 hits, good for .233 average in a season in which he had a .761 OPS. He also struck out 167 times.

There's no doubt all of those players have talent, but the question the Cubs must ask themselves is this: Will they improve quickly or were their disappointing 2018 results a signal toward the players they are?

The window for this Cubs group to win is for the next two seasons, as the superb starting pitching is intact through 2020. The offense is what needs major work and that which is being analyzed this offseason by Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. They're pondering how patient they can be in hoping for internal improvement and how aggressive they need to be in adding externally.

The Red Sox's blueprint is what the Cubs could aim to replicate. After a disappointing 2017 season in which they were 27th in MLB in home runs (167), Boston fired Davis as its hitting coach, which opened the door for him to land in Chicago. After Davis' exit, Red Sox officials shared their complaints about not producing enough power. They then went out and signed slugger J.D. Martinez for $110 million in the offseason and mashed 208 homers this season, which ranked ninth in MLB and helped spur them to the World Series against the Dodgers.

Was the power surge because of the exit of Davis -- who preaches using all fields at the expense of launch angle -- or because of the addition of a 43-homer bat in Martinez? It's likely some of both.

Like the Red Sox, the Cubs have a talented young offensive core. Javier Baez produced a 2018 that resulted in serious MVP consideration. Anthony Rizzo continues to produce consistently. Kris Bryant should return to much better form in 2019 after an injury-plagued 2018.

The Cubs will now have the chance to make an aggressiveness pursuit of Harper to create an elite lineup. The bidding for him in free agency will start at 10 years and $350 million. 

Harper has averaged 32 homers and 91 RBIs per 162 games played. He carries a career .388 on-base percentage, .512 slugging percentage and .900 OPS. He's on the front half of his prime, ready with 2019 representing his age-26 season. He has quality baserunning and defensive skills.

There are other factors to consider here that extend beyond the baseball diamond in a pursuit of Harper. The Cubs are in line to launch their own television network for the 2020 season, and having superstars with magnetic personalities will be a huge part of marketing the product.

The financial implications would be hefty. Before any Harper contract is factored in, a likely estimate for the Cubs' payroll in 2019 would be $210 million, assuming they exercise the $20-million option on left-hander Cole Hamels and factoring in the healthy raises for arbitration-eligible players like Baez, Bryant, Contreras, Schwarber and Kyle Hendricks.

But it should be noted that the Cubs' books are set to lighten a bit after the 2020 season, after which their big commitment to left-hander Jon Lester will be over. With some young pitching now matriculating through the system, money could be shifted toward the position players like Bryant and Baez, who are both under club control through 2021.

Will Harper join them? Only time will tell. What we know is he has the slugging ability and persona to fit in well with what the organization values and envisions.

After all, winning and entertainment are what sell.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.​​​