Bryce Harper rumors: Why you shouldn't count out the Cubs despite supposed budget crunch

For the past few years, the Cubs and now-free agent Bryce Harper have been connected in rumors. A union makes sense because the Cubs need to inject a bit more life into their offense, the team is among the richest in baseball and Harper is friends with fellow Las Vegas native Kris Bryant. The latter is easily the least important factor and has been overplayed, but it's there. 

Regardless, all the messaging from around the team once the offseason began has pointed toward the Cubs not being big spenders this offseason. Given that they need bullpen help and a backup catcher at the very least, adding Harper wouldn't be possible without the Cubs adding significantly to their payroll. Again, all the reporting around the Cubs this month from both national news-breakers and local beats has said that the Cubs are in a budget crunch. 

For me, something always seems fishy when stuff like this gets out. Even if the Cubs are in a budget crunch, shouldn't they act like they are in on Harper in order to drive the price up for other teams, for example? Further, while they did massage the cost a bit, why pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option (at a cost of $13 million since they flipped Drew Smyly's $7 million to the Rangers) if they're so poor? 

It's entirely possible, on the flip side, that the messaging is to lower fan expectations and guard against major backlash when a big splash isn't made. 

Or, it's just simply reality and word got out. 

What if, though, the Cubs are sending out messaging in a ploy to throw everyone off the scent? Back in 2011, everyone was reporting the Angels weren't going to spend in free agency and then they got Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million) and C.J. Wilson (five years, $75 million) on the last day of the winter meetings. That thought leads us to this: 

This hasn't been confirmed by any notable reporters either on the local or national level and Bernstein isn't a known news-breaker. We've also seen people you wouldn't expect break big stories on occasion. It happens. It's possible. 

Let's talk about the budget. The Cubs right now have an estimated 2019 payroll of $208.6 million per Baseball-Reference. The first-tier luxury tax of 20 percent kicks in at $226 million, but that's only on the overage. For example, if the Cubs run a $240 million payroll next season, they'd owe $2.8 million in tax. For a team swimming in cash, that's really not that much. Cubs blog Bleacher Nation ran a hypothetical payroll of $260 million and the tax on that is $19.15 million. 

The Ricketts family didn't get rich by throwing almost $20 million away and it's their money and not ours, but that really doesn't seem like that much money to the Chicago Cubs. Giving Harper something like 10 years and $330 million is a huge commitment and any contract of that size is a big risk, regardless of the generational talent involved, especially with Theo Epstein's Jason Heyward miss and the possibility that Yu Darvish was a miss last offseason as well. 

On the latter, I just can't shake the feeling that the Darvish deal doesn't happen if Epstein knew it would take Harper off the table. Maybe something with the Ricketts family changed in the time since that signing, but maybe it didn't and the Cubs will be all in on Harper. 

Totally speculative here: I'd probably bet on the Cubs not getting Harper, but I definitely wouldn't count them out. The stream of "the Cubs aren't going to spend big" reporting right when free agency began was almost too obvious, right?

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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