This offseason figures to be one of the most high-priced and exciting free agent affairs in the league’s long history – and the Chicago Cubs could very well be at the heart of it all. After remaining under the luxury tax threshold last season, they will most likely blow past that soft-cap this winter and could see some very notable changes along the way.
These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs, positions, and talent levels.
Potential Target: OF Bryce Harper, age 26
Performance in 2018
By the end of the 2018 season, Bryce Harper’s offensive numbers were mostly solid, but just how good you thought he really was might depend on what you value most and how much you trust advanced analytics:
Specifically, you can see that Harper’s batting average is quite low – perhaps depressingly so for someone pushing to eclipse the $300M contract mark – and his strikeout rate isn’t anything to write home about (indeed it was the second worst mark of his career). But the guy was a dang walking machine (2nd in MLB), which means he got on base A TON (9th in MLB). And to be fair, although his batting average was well-below his career mark (which we’ll get to in a second), his .289 BABIP was well below his career .318 mark, which explains and excuses quite a bit (we’ll get into that in a moment, too).
Promisingly, Harper’s soft contact (9th best in MLB) and hard contact (30th) rates were among the best in baseball, and thanks to a solid distribution of ground balls to fly balls, his ISO was the third HIGHEST of his career, and among the top-15 in baseball.
Moreover, Harper’s second-half production was about as impressive as can be across the board: .300/.434/.538 (159 wRC+, 9th best in MLB).
So basically, he had a slow start, but the peripherals all look EXCELLENT and his second-half numbers were right in line with his excellent 2017 season. Speaking of pre-2018 …
Performance Before 2018
Bryce Harper’s production has been all over the place throughout his career, shrinking to as low as a 111 wRC+ during his injury-laden 2016 season to as high as 197 wRC+ during his 2016 MVP campaign. With that said, he has averaged a 140 wRC+ during his seven-year career and has proven himself not only as one of the best offensive weapons in baseball, but also a guy with one of the highest offensive ceilings. I’ll repeat that for effect: Very few players in baseball can rival the potential offensive upside of Bryce Harper. He’s usually very, very good, but he can be truly elite, in every sense of the word.
Career Slash-line: .279/.388/.512 (140 wRC+)
Worth noting: He’s a former Rookie of the Year (2012), MVP (2015), Silver Slugger (2015), and a six-time All-Star (every season besides 2014).
Projection for 2018 and Beyond
The various 2019 statistical projections aren’t out yet, but we can learn plenty on our own. And to start, I’d like to circle back to his 2018 BABIP.
Last season, Bryce Harper’s .289 BABIP was well below his career .318 mark and was the second-lowest mark of his career by a wide margin. From that alone, you might expect some natural improvement, particularly in his batting average, and that should do a lot to calm any offensive nerves, should you have them.
But if you’re not a full believer in the natural regression players tend to experience with their BABIP, let me point out that Harper didn’t earn a low BABIP last season. In fact, from his peripherals, one could argue that it should’ve been even higher than his career mark. Consider that his 11.8% soft-hit rate was well below his 14.4% career mark and his 42.3% hard hit rate was well above his 35.6% career mark. (And, sure enough, by Statcast’s expected rates, you would have expected Harper’s final batting average to be nine points higher based on his batted ball info.)
Armed with that information, alone, I can comfortably say that Harper is due for a huge bounce back in the BABIP department next season. He was very unlucky last year, and still put up relatively huge numbers.
Additionally, one thing I LOVE about Harper’s overall profile is that even when he’s struggling, he’s still extremely productive thanks to that insane walk rate. After adjusting early in his career, Harper has put up a walk rate in the teens for four straight seasons, going only as low as 13.8%. That sort of mastery of the strike zone doesn’t go away easily – in fact, I’d argue it’s something that can get better with age.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Not unlike our current lack of projections, there aren’t a ton of legitimate rumors or contract projections out there yet, but we do know a few things for sure. Namely, the Chicago Cubs are inarguably the most-rumored landing spot for Harper over the past year. That much has been clear for quite a while and, in my opinion, occurs somewhat independently of his friendship with Kris Bryant, and the name of Harper’s dog, Wrigley. The Cubs are widely expected to seriously pursue Harper.
With that said, the Phillies, Giants, Dodgers, and Nationals have been connected to the slugger, too, and I am sure other teams will be seriously involved when all is said and done. The Cubs might want him badly, but so should a number of teams.
As for his contract, well, I think all notions of a $400M+ deal have flown out the window, but he still seems like a strong bet to exceed the $300M threshold. There was a rumor that his camp would begin the bidding at $350M, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Could he end up there? No doubt. Will the bidding “start” there? Nah.
And remember: any deal Harper signs is likely to include MANY opt-outs (as well as a no-trade clause), including, potentially, one after just a single year.
The Cubs haven’t commented publicly on Harper specifically, nor would they, but certain comments from Theo Epstein before the season sure sounded like they were keeping the door open for a guy just like Harper.
Bryce Harper has averaged just over 560 plate appearances each season and has been over 620 plate appearances in 3 of his last 4 years. With that said, he’s not without his injuries.
During the 2013 offseason, Harper successfully underwent left knee surgery to remove a bursa sac. During the 2014 season, Harper suffered a left thumb injury while sliding into third base, which required surgery to repair. During his down 2016 season, there were multiple rumors that Harper was playing through some sort of right shoulder injury. The team denied the rumors many times over, but his numbers seemed to tell a different story. In retrospect, and after other looks back, it feels a lot like Kris Bryant’s 2018 season, minus the transparency.
Non-Injury Considerations: Bryce Harper has a big, confident personality and that isn’t necessarily for everyone. He attracts attention like a magnet, but in my opinion, that’s absolutely wonderful. If he were to join the team this winter, he could very well define the Chicago Cubs, despite the presence of guys like Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo. Just don’t ask any clown questions.
Harper will receive a qualifying offer, so signing him would cost the Cubs their second highest pick in the 2019 draft and $500,000 in IFA pool money.
Fit for Cubs
The fit here is at once obvious and also delicate to describe. On the one hand, the Cubs have three outfield spots for Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist. And, of course, Schwarber has a similar profile to Harper, while he, Happ, Zobrist, and Heyward can all bat from the same side of the plate.
On the other hand, you can ALWAYS make room for someone as talented as Harper, and that is without mentioning the fact that someone is likely to get traded from that group and another (Zobrist) might find himself at second base from time to time next season.
On the most important third hand, the Cubs offense is in dire need of a bump, and Harper can provide that with arguably more certainty than any other single player available in free agency or trade. So if an improvement to the offense is what you’re looking for, Harper is the ultimate get. The Cubs can sort everything else out later.
Besides that, Harper’s youth fits in PERFECTLY among the rest of the Cubs core, who are all more or less similarly aged:
Anthony Rizzo – 29
Jason Heyward – 29
Kris Bryant – 26
Willson Contreras – 26
Bryce Harper – 26
Javy Baez – 25
Kyle Schwarber – 25
Albert Almora – 24
Ian Happ – 24
I mean … come on. Look at that.
At the end of the day, if you can’t already tell, I am 100% interested in the Cubs signing Bryce Harper (almost) to whatever deal it takes to get him in the door. Fortunately, it sure seems like Harper would be interested in joining the Cubs – at least, narratively that tracks – and the Cubs should have the payroll flexibility to make it happen. Consider him target 1A.