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Cubs Huge Favorites to Sign Harper after Early Playoff Exit

Theo Epstein talks to reporters at Wrigley Field.
Will Theo Epstein and the Cubs make a play for Bryce Harper after Chicago's offense was silenced down the stretch? Photo by Arturo Pardavila III (Flickr) CC License.
  • A power outage at the plate led to the Cubs being eliminated in the 2018 Wild Card Game. 
  • Now Chicago and its massive checkbook are huge favorites to sign the biggest offseason prize, Bryce Harper. 
  • But the Cubs already have big payroll commitments in the OF, unlike the up-and-coming Phillies, who have the second-best odds. 

When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series behind budding stars Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Javy Baez, it was supposed to be the start of a dynasty. But
Chicago has not made it back to the promised land and are trending in the wrong direction.

After being outclassed by the Dodgers in the 2017 NLDS, they took a further step back in 2018. Not only did they blow a 3.5-game lead in the NL Central (with just 11 games to play), ultimately losing the division in a one-game playoff to the Brewers (3-1), they could only muster a single run in the 2018 Wild Card Game against the Rockies, losing 2-1 in 13 innings.

The Cubs are positioned as heavy favorites to sign the best free agent available this offseason — 2014 NL MVP and former 1st-overall pick Bryce Harper — because losing in such a manner did not sit well with Theo Epstein …

Back in mid-September, the Cubs were already the favorites to sign Harper because (a) they have the money to do so, and (b) Harper is extremely close with childhood friend and current Chicago 3B Kris Bryant. The early playoff exit has made those odds even shorter, climbing from +150 to even money before falling back to a more reasonable +115.

The Cubs weren’t the only team whose odds got considerably shorter, though. The Phillies, who went 10-20 in their last 30 games and finished 24th in runs-scored, have moved from +650 to +450 and are now the second-favorites, leapfrogging the Dodgers and Yankees.

Odds to Sign Bryce Harper for 2019 MLB Season

TEAM ODDS TO SIGN HARPER FOR 2019 2018 WAR FROM RFs 25-MAN PAYROLL COMMITMENTS FOR 2019
Cubs +115 (↑ from +150) 5.8 (3rd) $179 M (1st)
Phillies +450 (↑ from +650) 0.3 (27th) $68.9 M (19th)
Dodgers +500 (↓ from +350) 3.6 (10th) $133 M (5th)
Nationals +600 (↑ from +700) 5.4 (7th) $78 M (16th)
Yankees +700 (↓ from +450) 5.6 (6th) $86 M (14th)
Red Sox +1100 (↓ from +900) 10.4 (2nd) $137 M (4th)
Angels +1200 (↔ no change) -1.0 (28th) $125 M (6th)
Giants +1600 (↓ from +1500) 1.9 (22nd) $142 M (2nd)

Comparing the situations of the Cubs and Phillies, it’s clear that signing Harper makes a lot more sense for one than the other.

The Phillies are getting dreadful production from their outfield, and from right field in particular (0.3 WAR from RFs). Plus, their only major commitment in the OF over the next couple seasons is Odubel Herrera, who makes a reasonable $5.35 M.

The Cubs, on the other hand, already have $34 M committed to RF Jason Heyward and OF/2B Ben Zobrist. They also received the third-highest WAR from the right-field position in 2018 (5.8) according to FanGraphs, trailing only the Red Sox and Brewers, who had presumptive AL and NL MVPs Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich occupying that position for much of the year.

While the entire team struggled late in the year, there’s every reason to expect more from their current group in 2019, when their schedule is less impacted by rainouts and the like.

The incumbent Nationals lie in between the Cubs and Phillies in terms of OF payroll commitments. Their RF production was, not coincidentally, about equal to Harper’s production. Harper (95 starts) and Adam Eaton (64 starts) made all but three starts in RF for Washington in 2018.

2019 Outfield Payroll Commitments

2019 OF PAYROLL COMMITMENTS CHICAGO CUBS PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES WASHINGTON NATIONALS
PLAYER Jason Heyward ($22.5 M) Odubel Herrera ($5.35 M) Adam Eaton ($8.4 M)
PLAYER Ben Zobrist ($12.5M) Rhys Hoskins (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Howie Kendrick ($4 M)
PLAYER Albert Almora (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Aaron Altherr (Arb 1, <3 M) Michael Taylor (Arb 2, ~$3-4 M)
PLAYER Ian Happ (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Dylan Cozens (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Juan Soto (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M)
PLAYER Kyle Schwarber (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Roman Quinn (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M) Victor Robles (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M)
PLAYER Nick Williams (Pre-Arbitration, <$1 M)
TOTAL ~$36 million ~$11 million ~$17-18 million

Obviously, signing Harper requires considering longterm salary commitments, both the ones that are already set in stone and the others that are inevitable. So just looking at 2019 commitments doesn’t tell the whole story about which teams are best positioned to make a massive offer to Harper, who will be looking for a contract in the four to five-year range exceeding $300 million total value.

Rhys Hoskins and Juan Soto are the best building blocks the Phillies and Nationals have right now. They have quickly become the cornerstones of their franchises and will command hefty salaries down the road.

Hoskins and Soto notwithstanding, the Phillies and Nats are both better positioned than the Cubs, who still owe over $100 M to Heyward over the next five years and have a trio of young OFs to worry about signing longterm. They could just as easily move on from the likes of Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber, but that may be shortsighted given that trio’s pedigree and the fluctuations in Harper’s production over the years (which I covered in detail back in September).

What Does That Mean for Bettors?

The moral of the story is that the big-market Cubs certainly have the money and the motivation to go after Harper, and they have the added allure of Kris Bryant. However, when it comes to pure baseball math, the Phillies make a lot more sense as a landing spot, and so does Washington, a city Harper loves.

I’ve always said: If I’m in [the team’s] plans, I’d absolutely love to be [in Washington] … I would love to play next to Robles or Soto or [Adam] Eaton. I’d love to. But am I in those plans? I have no idea.” – Bryce Harper to the Washington Post, Sep. 25, 2018

In sum, bettors should tread with caution before wagering on the Cubs at such a short number.

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