Bryce Harper to the Cubs has been a hot rumor for years, but for a while, it was really more of a fun pipe dream than anything substantial.
Until recently, that is.
More than ever, it's become apparent the Cubs could really use Harper or one of the other big free agent hitters to help supplement a lineup that underperformed for a large chunk of 2018.
At this time a year ago, the Cubs were still reeling from their NLCS loss to the Dodgers when the offense went quiet at all the wrong moments in October. But even with that narrative, it still was hard to see how Theo Epstein's front office could justify spending a ridiculous amount of money to supplement a position player group that was seen as the strength of the team and only projected to get better.
So much has changed in that year.
The Cubs just tied with the 115-loss Baltimore Orioles for the MLB lead with the most games scoring 1 or 0 runs (40) and had 21 such occurences after the All-Star Break including Game 163 and the NL Wild-Card contest.
From July 23 (the Cubs' first 1-run performance of the second half) on, the Cubs' offensive ranks were eye-popping — 20th in batting average, 22nd in runs scored, 25th in homers, 27th in OPS, 27th in wRC+, 29th in hard contact percentage, 30th in fly ball percentage.
They were actually 1st in one category, but no team wants to lead baseball in ground balls — especially in this day and age of "Launch Angle" and "slug comes from hitting the ball in the air."
None of these are new stats, however. Not if you've been paying attention.
Like Epstein said, something "broke" with the Cubs offense after the All-Star Game.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
Nobody would've been surprised if the Cubs faded down the stretch because of a lack of pitching. That would've been understandable given the injuries to Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow and then Pedro Strop plus the ineffectiveness of Tyler Chatwood. But it was the pitching staff — and the prudent trades for Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez — that kept the Cubs afloat atop the NL Central (until Game 163, that is) and gave them a chance to even make it to the NLDS.
But the offense failing? That would've been tough to predict, even while flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways in the first half.
The rebuild was all about these young position players. This offensive core was supposed to be together for a while, lifting the team to contention each season thanks to a relentless, American League-style lineup.
Pitching was supposed to be the main challenge for Epstein and Co. — not the offense.
Yet we're still waiting for guys like Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ to take that next step offensively and truly break out. They've had their moments, sure — namely Schwarber and Russell in October 2016.
The Cubs' championship window is far from closed — they have at least another three years (when Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo all hit free agency).
But even Epstein admitted it's time to start evaluating the Cubs players based on production, not just potential.
"It's our job not just to assemble a talented group, but unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' season ended. "Because that's ultimately all that matters. It's an assessment on those two fronts — the talent that we have and who's going to be productive, who's not or where we can find that production.
"And then also understand the environment and are we doing everything that we can in creating just the right situation to get the most out of these guys?"
You know who's pretty damn productive? Bryce Harper. And Manny Machado. And Josh Donaldson.
More than ever, it's clear the Cubs need established, veteran hitters in the lineup. The August trade for Daniel Murphy and his subsequent playing time late in the season proved that.
Young players are a lot more prone to ups and downs, which explains the streakiness and inconsistency of this lineup in recent seasons. When they're hot, they're hot, but it also means slumps and cold spells, which seemed to happen all at the same time in 2018.
Sure, getting Bryant back healthy and renewed production out of Willson Contreras will help this lineup immensely. And it's fair to bet on a rebound for a lot of these talented players.
But when you have World-Series-or-bust expectations and a championship window that is firmly open, it's not a time to sit back and "hope."
"We had far more players underperform expectations than meet expectations," Epstein said. "Dramatically. In a lot of ways, that's what this year was defined by. Some because of physical issues, some because of the mental side of the game, some because of the fundamental stuff, some for reasons we haven't yet determined.
"We had more players underperform our projections for them and their expectations — things they've done in the past — than exceed. So I think regression will work in our favor. It's not something you want to hang your hat on and count on."