LAS VEGAS — As Chicago’s other baseball team became an increasingly serious suitor for this winter’s top free agent, even Bryce Harper’s agent on Wednesday downplayed his client’s years-long flirtation with Cub fans.
Harper, who is baseball BFFs with third baseman Kris Bryant, has tantalized Cubs fans for two years with social-media posts hinting at the Cubs as an eventual landing spot — going so far as to make it known his dog’s name is Wrigley.
“KB and Harp have a great personal, professional relationship,” said agent Scott Boras, who — instead of trying to stoke speculation of Cubs’ interest and a broader market of buyers —added: “I think a lot of their conversations are about hitting, to be honest. I think they enjoy one another, but they also understand these decisions and what owners do are really independent of their relationship and they don’t have a lot of control over that.”
Could it be that all of the Cubs’ public talk of budget limitations and getting creative to add players this winter also is the actual message they’re sending to free agents and would-be trade partners?
Might it even have something to do with those two Cubs front-office guys hovering over the craps table Tuesday night as the second day of winter meetings drew to a close at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas?
By Wednesday, it was clear the dice held no better answers for the Cubs and a payroll budget pushed toward its ceiling by bad contracts last winter.
The Cubs are focusing across the free-agent market and in trade talks on bullpen help and a strong veteran presence in a bench player who can catch or handle the middle infield.
Even with closer Brandon Morrow (clean-out surgery on elbow) expected to miss at least the first month of the season, sources say the Cubs plan to stay away from high-end relievers as they shop for two established bullpen pitchers, unless the prices unexpectedly drop within that market over the next month or two.
That means an already slow-moving winter likely will drift into at least January before the Cubs add a pitcher.
“It’s been good and productive [at the meetings this week], but I think we’re probably unlikely to make any deals while we’re here,” said general manager Jed Hoyer, who added that it’s possible winter activity might even stretch into spring training for them and other teams.
“It could,” he said. “Every market’s different. The winter meetings are actually a little later than usual this year, so if things don’t happen next week, we know they’ll probably drag into January.”
As for the big free agent in Vegas, he’ll stay in Vegas as far as the Cubs are concerned.
Harper’s Las Vegas neighborhood pal, on the other hand, dropped by the Cubs’ executive suite Wednesday to check in.
“He looks great. He looks like he’s focused,” Hoyer said of Bryant, who appears to have recovered from the shoulder soreness that put him on the disabled list twice in 2018.
“He has no restrictions,” Boras said. “He’s in great shape.”
That could be one of the biggest improvements the Cubs make this winter as they look internally for the offensive production that fell off in the second half of last season.
It may not be the kind of splashy fix Cubs fans expected when the offseason began — or the kind of limits Boras believes are appropriate for one of the top-revenue teams in a $10 billion-a-year industry.
“These franchises are worth billions of dollars more than when they purchased them,” Boras said. “They have the wealth to do whatever they feel is best for their club.”
And if they don’t?
“In the end all organizations are going to look back on this opportunity [to acquire Harper],” Boras said. “There are a lot of organizations and general managers [who will] be evaluated on what they did or didn’t do.”