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.

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”