Free agent powerhouse Bryce Harper has toyed with Cub fans coveting his MVP bat and luxurious mane since naming his dog Wrigley and spending the last two years posting Instagram photos hanging out with Cubs pal Kris Bryant and their wives – including hashtags like #Back2BackOneDay.
But the only sure thing in Las Vegas next week when baseball convenes for the winter meetings is that Harper’s only avenue to the Cubs this offseason involves the equivalent of Theo Epstein and the hottest pair of dice in town.
Talk about craps.
“We’d have to get really creative to add dollars of real significance,” Epstein, the Cubs president, said. “Things would have to be sequenced in a certain way.”
As much as some on the local airwaves suggest such talk for the big-revenue Cubs might be a smokescreen for the front office’s efforts to land this year’s top free agent, insiders and math insist otherwise.
If the Cubs do nothing more than keep their current roster intact, they are assured of the highest payroll in franchise history and of exceeding Major League Baseball’s $206 million luxury tax threshold.
Harper already has turned down an offer from the Nationals, reportedly worth $300 million for 10 years.
“We have limitations, like every team does,” said Epstein, who has talked since the season’s abrupt ending in October about the need for the team’s young core of hitters to rebound from a collectively poor finish in 2018.
On Thursday he called the 2019 season a year of “reckoning” for the organization.
And in emphasizing that point, he made it clear that barring moves that free up significant payroll space the Cubs won’t be adding a nine-figure commitment to their books for the fourth time in five years.
And nobody’s lining up to take the five years left on Jason Heyward’s $184 million deal or the five left on Yu Darvish’s $126 million contract – never mind the $25.5 million owed to Tyler Chatwood the next two years.
“You can’t just keep shopping without making things fit for your roster and for your payroll and the situation that you’re in,” Epstein said. “I understand the desire for a big name every winter, and there are winters where we do acquire a big name, and there will be winters where we don’t acquire a big name.
“I don’t know what category this winter will fall into yet, but there’s a chance that it’s going to be a winter where we don’t acquire a big name from outside the organization.”
An already big need for bullpen depth was underscored Thursday by the revelation that closer Brandon Morrow underwent an arthroscopic “clean-out” surgery on his elbow last month and isn’t expected to be ready for April.
They don’t appear to be in position to simply throw money at that need, either, after allowing the Rangers to sign away valuable reliever Jesse Chavez for lack of $8 million the Rangers committed for a two-year contract.
Where the Cubs figure to add a bat also was made clearer when bench infielder Tommy La Stella was non-tendered last week, opening a roster spot for a better, more versatile infielder – which is especially important in April, when shortstop Addison Russell is serving the final 28 days of his domestic violence suspension.
Epstein may yet find a card or two up his sleeve in Vegas, but until then he seems intent on playing the hand already dealt.
“It’s time to perform,” he said, putting the onus again on the players, staff and resources already in house. “This year is really a reckoning in a lot of ways. We do have a lot to prove. It sounds funny coming off 95 wins. I feel like we underperformed.
“I think you’re going to see a really highly motivated group of players out there. Whether we have a big offseason or a more nuanced offseason, you should judge us on how we play next year.”
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