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How Bryce Harper-Phillies deal will affect Cubs moving forward

How Bryce Harper-Phillies deal will affect Cubs moving forward

Now that the dust has settled on Bryce Harper's record deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, we can now turn (most of) our attention to the season ahead.

Only a few high-profile free agents remain, but otherwise we know pretty much where everybody will spend their 2019 campaign and which teams are expecting to contend.

With that, let's take a look at how Harper's 13-year contract affects the Cubs this year and moving forward:

The Cubs' road just got tougher and 2019 just got a bit more dire

While the Cubs stayed mostly stagnant this winter, the rest of the National League around them got quite a bit better.

Harper hasn't been linked to an American League team in months, but now it's official he will remain in the NL, joining forces with J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura on a much-improved Phillies team.

As a matter of fact, you could describe a bunch of NL teams as "much-improved" — on paper, at least.

The Phillies, Mets, Padres, Reds and Cardinals all got significantly better this winter while the Nationals still look every bit a contender even without Harper.

The Braves, Rockies, Brewers and Dodgers all enter 2019 with largely the same roster that earned them a trip to the playoffs a year ago, though each squad added a pretty-high profile player in free agency to improve their teams (Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy, Yasmani Grandal, A.J. Pollock).

Even the Pirates continue to boast an underrated roster amid their standard quiet winter.

Only the Diamondbacks got worse while the Marlins and Giants also figure to be on the outside looking in at the playoff race this year even if their roster isn't markedly worse.

Don't get me wrong — the Cubs have a great roster, too, and they have plenty of reason for optimism in the year ahead.

But don't expect the Cubs to roll through the NL this year like they did in 2016.

Their division is the hardest in baseball and it could shape up to be the toughest from top to bottom since the NL East in 2005, when the Nationals finished in last with a .500 record (81-81). 

Unless the Pirates or Reds underperform expectations in 2019 (which is entirely possible), the Cubs won't get to catch their breath within the division all year and they certainly won't get a break playing against the NL East (with 4 contending teams) or West (with potentially 3 contenders).

The NL is going to be a dogfight from start to finish and the Cubs will need every bit of their internal improvement/new sense of urgency they prioritized over the winter.

The future of Kris Bryant and others

It's probably going to be tougher for the Cubs to sign star players to extensions in the future — namely Bryant and Javy Baez.

Anthony Rizzo is a special case in that he already agreed to a team-friendly extension way back when he was in pre-arbitration, so it's definitely possible he would be open to another deal to extend his time as a Cub. He'll also be 32 by the time he hits free agency (after 2021) and leaving the prime of his career, increasing the liklihood he may just opt to re-sign with the Cubs.

But Bryant will only be 30 and Baez will be 29 as the two stars head into free agency after that 2021 season. 

With how long free agency dragged on this winter, we heard more and more talk about star players like Harper and Manny Machado possibly having to settle for short-term, high-value deals. Only a handful of teams were involved and even as recently as mid-February (at the start of spring training), nobody knew if Harper or Machado would even be able to get to the $300 million threshold they both desired.

This winter was largely a scary time for free agents. Many baseball players saw how difficult the process has become and decided they didn't want to hit the market, instead rethinking extensions with their current teams.

We've seen a bunch of that recently, as Nolan Arenado, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino and Miles Mikolas all inked deals with their respective teams to avoid hitting free agency in the near future.

But with Machado netting $300 million over 10 years and Harper $330 million over 13 seasons, it was enough of a sigh of relief for select free agents — the stars. 

Free agency is still completely broken, especially for the guys in the middle of the pack. But Machado and Harper proved the game's truly elite players could still net record deals on the open market and Bryant and Baez may well still be among the game's elite when they hit free agency. They'll both still be firmly in the midst of their prime.

That likely doesn't change a whole lot at the negotiating table between the Cubs and Bryant's/Baez's respective camps now. But if Harper or Machado had been forced to take short-term deals or did not get the money they desired, it would've painted a scarier picture of free agency and given the Cubs a better hand to play in extension talks.

Are the Cubs nearing the end of the championship window?

Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery join Bryant, Baez and Rizzo as notable Cubs who hit the open market after that 2021 season. 

Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana are under team control for only another two seasons.

Just about the entire bullpen is unsigned after this year and Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist will also hit free agency in 9 months.

The farm system is ranked among the worst in the game and no stars appear to be on the cusp of hitting the big leagues.

The Cubs' championship window isn't shut by any means, but it's certainly closing. The possible end is in sight.

The Cubs already felt the need for a stronger sense of urgency in 2019, but they also are running out of time to win another ring and potentially reignite all that "dynasty" talk.

Of course, Theo Epstein's front office will continue to add to the team and build up the farm system over the next few years in an effort to keep that window of contention open longer, but this winter was a prime chance to greatly improve their roster for this season and they were instead forced to pinch pennies and only make minor additions.

Harper signing with the Phillies Thursday officially slammed the door shut for any Cubs fans who were holding out hope that all the talk of the budget woes were just to drive the price down.

And it officially eliminated any possibility of the Cubs making a huge splash before Opening Day, as Harper was essentially the last free agent that would've been a major upgrade on some area of the Cubs' roster. (Craig Kimbrel would obviously help the Cubs bullpen, but Epstein has never paid big money for a closer and the Cubs have not been linked to the right-hander at all this winter.)

So the Cubs will head to Opening Day with only Daniel Descalso, Brad Brach and possibly another bullpen arm or two as the only additions to the 25-man roster.

Who will be Cubs fans' next big target?

Now that Bryce Harper won't be available again until 2032, Cubs fans have no choice but to cross him off their free agent wish list and move on to the next name.

Will it be Anthony Rendon or Chris Sale next winter? Mike Trout, Mookie Betts or Jacob deGrom after 2020? Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa or Clayton Kershaw after 2021?

No matter who fans rally behind, we probably won't ever see anything quite like this Harper circus again.

One thing's for certain: The next free agent crush of the fanbase won't hit the open market with a dog named "Wrigley."

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Before he was a Cub,, Kyle Schwarber was a high school singer, football player

Before he was a Cub,, Kyle Schwarber was a high school singer, football player

Kyle Schwarber will go down in Cubs lore for his dramatic return from a torn ACL and LCL in time for the 2016 World Series. Despite not facing big league pitching in six months, the catcher-turned-left fielder put on a hitting clinic that series.

Schwarber hit .412 in five games, which includes the rally-inducing single to leadoff the 10th inning of Game 7. That game, of course, was played in Cleveland, which is a perfect Segway for a few off-the-field facts about the Cubs slugger.

1. Schwarber was born in Middletown, Ohio and grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan. As a former catcher, his role model was Johnny Bench — the Reds Hall of Fame backstop.

2. Schwarber attended Middletown High School, where he was a linebacker on the football team. Here’s a legendary photo of him trying to tackle future Ohio State quarterback and NFL wide receiver, Braxton Miller.

3. Not only was he an athlete in high school, but Schwarber was also a member of his school’s show choir. You need this content in your life, and I’m happy to provide it to you.

There’s Schwarber, front and a bit off-center:

For good measure, the Cubs had Schwarber and other players reenact the performance back in 2016 — with future manager David Ross taking a playful shot at Schwarber:

Like I said, you need this content.

4. Schwarber has one brother and three sisters. His dad is a retired police chief, a big inspiration for the Schwarber’s Neighborhood Heroes campaign — which recognizes first responders and their sacrifices.

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The 16 most underrated players in Cubs franchise history

The 16 most underrated players in Cubs franchise history

Banks. Sandberg. Sosa. Rizzo.

In addition to being a potential “Cubs Mount Rushmore,” these players are synonymous with ones who fans remember — and likely cheered for — the most. Odds are you’ll find more Ryne Sandberg jerseys in the stands than, say, Terry Mulholland or Steve Trout.

But an astute fan of the 2016 club would mention that John Lackey nearly had as many strikeouts that season as Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta. Or that fan favorite Mark DeRosa led the 97-win 2008 team in runs scored (103). 

These are the glue guys. The grinders. The players that hold teams together.

So, with a nod toward the 2016 World Series champs, here is the list of the 16 most underrated Cubs of all-time:

The 16 most underrated players in Cubs franchise history 

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