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No dice for Bryce? Look for Cubs at craps table in Vegas during winter meetings

Free-agent powerhouse Bryce Harper has toyed with Cubs fans who covet his MVP bat and luxurious mane since naming his dog ‘‘Wrigley’’ and spending the last two years posting Instagram photos of himself hanging out with Kris Bryant and their wives. Included are hashtags such as #Back2BackOneDay.

But the only sure thing when baseball convenes for the Winter Meetings this week in Las Vegas is that Harper’s only avenue to the Cubs involves the equivalent of president Theo Epstein and the hottest pair of dice in town.

Talk about craps.

‘‘We’d have to get really creative to add dollars of real significance,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘Things would have to be sequenced in a certain way.’’

Deal or no deal? Theo Epstein leads the Cubs into the winter meetings in Las Vegas over the next week. / John Antonoff photo

As much as some on the local airwaves suggest such talk might be a smokescreen for the front office’s efforts to land Harper, the top free agent on the market this offseason, insiders and math insist otherwise.

If the Cubs do nothing more than keep their current roster intact, they are assured of having the highest payroll in franchise history and of exceeding Major League Baseball’s $206 million luxury-tax threshold.

Harper already has turned down an offer from the Nationals that reportedly is worth $300 million for 10 years.

‘‘We have limitations, like every team does,’’ said Epstein, who has talked since the Cubs’ season ended abruptly in October about the need for the team’s young core of hitters to rebound from a collectively poor finish in 2018.

On Thursday, he called the 2019 season a year of ‘‘reckoning’’ for the organization.

And in emphasizing that point, he made it clear that, barring moves that free up significant payroll space, the Cubs won’t be adding a nine-figure commitment to their books for the fourth time in five years.

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And nobody’s lining up to take the five years left on right fielder Jason Heyward’s $184 million deal or the five left on right-hander Yu Darvish’s $126 million contract, never mind the $25.5 million owed to right-hander Tyler Chatwood the next two years.

‘‘You can’t just keep shopping without making things fit for your roster and for your payroll and the situation that you’re in,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘I understand the desire for a big name every winter, and there are winters where we do acquire a big name and there will be winters where we don’t acquire a big name.

‘‘I don’t know what category this winter will fall into yet, but there’s a chance that it’s going to be a winter where we don’t
acquire a big name from outside the organization.’’

An already-big need for bullpen depth was underscored by the revelation Thursday that closer Brandon Morrow had an arthroscopic ‘‘clean-out’’ surgery on his right (pitching) elbow last month and isn’t expected to be ready for April.

The Cubs don’t appear to be in a position to throw money at that need, either, after allowing valuable reliever Jesse Chavez to leave for lack of the $8 million the Rangers gave him for a two-year contract.

Where the Cubs figure to add a bat also was made clearer when reserve Tommy La Stella was non-tendered last week, opening a roster spot for a better, more versatile infielder. That is especially important in April, when shortstop Addison Russell is serving the final 28 games of his domestic-violence suspension.

Epstein might yet find a card or two up his sleeve in Vegas, but until then he seems intent on playing the hand already dealt.

‘‘It’s time to perform,’’ he said, putting the onus again on the players, staff and resources already in-house. ‘‘This year is
really a reckoning in a lot of ways. We do have a lot to prove. It sounds funny coming off 95 wins, [but] I feel like we underperformed.

‘‘I think you’re going to see a really highly motivated group of players out there. Whether we have a big offseason or a more nuanced offseason, you should judge us on how we play next year.’’