Cubs

How the Cubs could pair Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant in 2019

How the Cubs could pair Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant in 2019

Imagine Bryce Harper smashing balls onto Sheffield Ave. and battling the tough sun in right field in afternoon games at Wrigley Field.

The 24-year-old superstar will hit free agency in a year and a half (after the 2018 season) and the bidding frenzy will be unlike anything we've ever seen before. 

So will the Cubs be in on that bidding war for Harper?

Longtime baseball writer Peter Gammons is in Chicago this weekend as part of Theo Epstein's Hot Stove Cool Music festival and Gammons hopped on 670 The Score to discuss the possibility of Harper reuniting with fellow Vegas product Kris Bryant on the North Side.

"I have people tell me that Bryce Harper really would prefer to play for the Cubs," Gammons said on the Mully and Hanley Show Friday. "Somehow, I don't think that it's gonna be affordable to see Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant on the same team. 

"It's a great idea; I'd love to see it, 'cause I respect them both so much personally and professionally. But I don't think it's ever gonna happen."

Gammons has a point. Harper is still more than a year away from free agency and there have already been reports that he and agent Scott Boras are seeking a $400 million deal. 

The New York Yankees don't have many long-term, big-money contracts left, so they'll be flush with cash for the winter of 2018-19 when maybe the best free agent class ever hits the market. And anytime the Yankees are in the mix, the price will go through the roof.

Keep in mind, too, Harper and his camp have a clear advantage to creating a link with the Cubs given that association alone will drive the price up expontentially.

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So how could the Cubs reasonably afford Harper in 2019?

It won't be easy, that's for sure. 

The Cubs currently have $71.786 million committed in 2019 to Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop's buy-out.

2019 will be Bryant's second season in arbitration and don't expect him to sign a team-friendly deal like Rizzo's given Boras is also Bryant's agent and almost always lets his players hit free agency to drive up the price on the open market.

In 2019, the Cubs will also be done with rookie contracts on a host of other guys, dealing out arbitration to Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez. (Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Carl Edwards Jr. will still be on rookie deals in 2019.)

Arbitration/rookie deals for all those guys will bring the Cubs past $100 million for 2019 — a lot of money committed to only 12 players (assuming all the guys listed so far remain a part of the picture).

That also only takes care of three pitchers, leaving nine to 10 spots on the pitching staff to allocate money to. It's worth noting Lester will be 35 in 2019.

The Cubs will need to pour a ton of resources into the pitching staff this offseason and beyond.

But then again, if the Cubs can win another World Series this year or next, it would presumably leave them entering the 2019 free agency class in a great spot financially.

By then, Wrigley Field — and the surrounding area — could also be completely finished with all the renovations, making it the premier place to play in all of baseball and certainly an attraction for free agents.

Just dreaming on it for a second: Bryant-Harper-Rizzo would be an absolutely ridiculous heart of the order that would certainly rival the Hall of Fame trio of Ernie Banks-Billy Williams-Ron Santo in Cubs lore.

And of course, it will be awfully difficult to find a way to retain Bryant's services once he hits free agency following the 2021 season with Harper already on the payroll, but that's another problem for another time.

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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