Cubs could end collusion chatter by taking Harper-Bryant bromance to next level

It took only a few minutes into the first question-and-answer session with fans Saturday at the Cubs Convention for all the Vegas trolling to reach the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Fan: “Theo, when do you think I can get my Bryce Harper jersey?”

Team president Theo Epstein (once the laughter died down): “You need to ask Kris Bryant. He seems to have quite a few.”

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Pals Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant before facing each other in the NL Division Series last October.

Bryce Harper to Chicago? The Cubs’ $400 million question for next year’s free-agent market?

“Who wouldn’t want to have the guy on your team?” said Bryant, the Cubs third baseman who followed Harper’s 2015 MVP season with one of his own. “Me just getting into pro baseball and getting to be around him more, I realize what an asset he would be for anybody that has him.

“I would love having him on our team.”

For more than a year, the childhood pals from Las Vegas have hash-tagged and Twitter-teased the idea of taking their bromance to the next level when Harper becomes a free agent after this season.

Maybe that’s why the Cubs have kept their spending low this winter and seem to be waiting for a -discount before they reel in a frontline pitcher they want by spring training.

Maybe that’s what all 30 teams are doing, with almost every top free agent still unsigned. Maybe they’re waiting for next year’s superclass, which includes Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and possibly Clayton Kershaw?

“I talk to Theo a lot, and it’s been a very interesting offseason,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “Just a lot of teams are keeping their powder dry for next year. That’s probably the biggest driver.”

For now, whispers of collusion continue as three-year deals remain the maximum-length contracts and the top free agents at almost every position are still without jobs.

Ricketts flatly denied collusion is involved.

“There’s nothing to it,” he said. “I think everyone just has finite resources and they’re looking at the playing field for the market and they’re making whatever decisions they want to make for their own team.”

Maybe it’s the relatively tight luxury-tax levels in the new collective-bargaining agreement that are keeping teams from jumping into the deep end of the market, despite annual industry revenues that have reached $12 billion.

If it’s not an organic market force, keep an eye on Harper. Because proof would seem certain to come by this time next year, whether Harper is taking center stage at the Cubs Convention or headed to New York.

“There’s been some macroeconomic trends in the game probably after the last collective-bargaining agreement,” Epstein said. “Teams are just trying to position themselves the best way they can, probably with one eye on next year’s free-agent market and trying to get their payroll where they want it to be.

“It’s hard to say there’s any one reason. It’s probably a combination of factors, but I don’t know that we’ve seen anything quite like this.”

Landing another starting pitcher remains the Cubs’ highest priority as they wrap up the convention Sunday and prepare for spring training in a month.

The trade Saturday night that sent Gerrit Cole from the Pirates to the Astros might influence the market, if only to take one suitor off the board for right-hander Yu Darvish — if not Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb.

“The whole industry has really been moving at a snail’s pace, and sometimes you just have to play along with the pace of play,” Epstein said. “We’re still working hard on a few different things. The team’s not done.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com