Bryce Harper and the Cubs: Marriage fueled by cash and camaraderie just waiting to happen

Bryce Harper, a National League MVP at 23, is a free agent at 26, peddling his services in an industry that’s grown to nearly $11 billion in annual revenues. His combination of skills, age and marketing cachet make him an excellent fit for any major league franchise.

Particularly the Chicago Cubs.

Harper, who has 184 career home runs and a lifetime .900 OPS, rejected a 10-year, $300 million contract offer from the Washington Nationals in September, and is a good bet to set a new standard for the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.

It may take weeks for that process to play out. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports will examine why every team could use Harper’s services – some more than others, certainly some better-equipped to procure them.

A case for Harper and the Cubs joining forces:

On the field

Of all the teams with a highly plausible shot at landing Harper, the Cubs are perhaps unmatched in terms of the questions they face and the introspection necessary to answer them.

How large is their championship window – and are they at the start, middle, or end of it?

How wedded are they to their core of young players – and how many of them do they care to retain at any cost?

Are they willing to break the bank for one season of a true “super team” – and are the players on that roster capable of accepting significantly diminished roles to make it happen?

And perhaps most notably, do they believe their offensive backslide at the end of 2018 that cost them a division title and sent them home by October is a blip, or a signal this team is getting older and in need of a recharge?

“Our offense broke somewhere along the lines,” said baseball operations president Theo Epstein in the wake of their NL wild-card game loss to Colorado. “Something happened in our offense in the second half where we stopped walking, we stopped hitting home runs, we stopped hitting the ball in the air and we stopped being productive.”

Harper, of course, would help immensely in all those areas.

While the Cubs wilted in the second half – and scored one or no runs in 40 of their 164 total games – Harper suffered through the worst first half of his career, batting .214 at the All-Star break. Yet by season’s end, he had the numbers that mattered – an NL-leading 130 walks, 34 home runs, a .393 OBP, an .889 OPS.

While Harper’s 2018 valleys at times deadened the Nationals’ offense, his season-long numbers are the essential vitamins needed to maintain good lineup health.

And he’d give the Cubs a punishing core for the next three seasons.

Drop Harper amid Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras and you’d have a quintet of All-Stars all in their prime, all, save for Rizzo, younger than 30 from now through the 2021 season.

At best, it’d be a daunting offensive machine. At worst, it buys an awful lot of insurance when one guy is not clicking – be it Bryant for most of 2018 due to a shoulder injury, Contreras’ disconcerting second-half power dip or however Rizzo’s production may change as he nears 30.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ cupboard would overflow with options in 2019.

Three everyday positions would be left to divide among Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and David Bote. The Cubs could keep them all and enjoy an absurdly deep and largely flexible roster.

They could also trade one or multiple parts and either fortify the bullpen or restock a farm system depleted by four seasons of win-now marching orders. Zobrist, coming off a solid 2018, would have nice value as he’ll make just $12 million in the final year of his contract and provides multi-position versatility.

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