Is Cole Hamels’ Option Really Holding Up Bryce Harper Deal?

I’m confused.

Like many of you, I expected the Cubs to aggressively court Bryce Harper this offseason. I believed they had kept themselves under the luxury tax in 2018 in anticipation of a big payroll jump in 2019.

Then rumors started circulating that the Cubs were more financially strapped than previously believed and that Harper was off the table. While I am the “financial guy” here at Cubs Insider, I largely stayed silent because I did not have any more information than the rest of you. All of my financial data is gleaned from estimates from secondary sources, so I did not have anything new to add to the conversation.

I did believe that Cubs management was genuinely interested in going after Harper and that fear of a big contract was not the issue. The first part still seems to be true, but any appetite for adding to the payroll may have been sated by a genuine lack of money. If that is indeed the case, I suspect there are two logical culprits for sudden poverty.

One is uncertainty as to how much revenue the new regional sports network (allegedly to be named Marquee) could be expected to bring in. Specifically, the uncertainty of streaming compatibility with Marquee, in combination with Disney’s divestment of a series of regional sports networks it acquired from FOX, was causing the Cubs’ financial side to downgrade long-term revenue estimates. The other culprit is the lack of 2018 playoff revenue, which would have supplemented the 2019 budget until the TV money could start rolling in.

Depressing, but understandable.

But then, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Cubs asked Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, to circle back with them before signing any deal. The Cubs apparently still hope they can move salary to make Harper a possibility, which is where my confusion comes in. The uncertainty over Marquee is not going to disappear in the next two months, which means the budget issues are based on current payroll limits.

If that is the case, why on earth did the Cubs pick up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option? I get that they wanted more starting pitching depth. Yet they had Mike Montgomery and a healthy (fingers crossed) Yu Darvish, plus Drew Smyly under contract as a depth option. They also knew there would be a plethora of relief arms on the market to be plucked for a deal late in the offseason.

I also get that the 2019 budget was not finalized until after Hamels’ option was picked up. Again, however, the Cubs must have had a ballpark number prior to the final budget (if they did not, someone really dropped the ball). If that $20 million option was even going to come close to creating a cash crunch, it should have been vetoed. MVP-caliber 26-year-old superstars almost never hit the open market and there is no equivalent to Harper in 2020 or ’21. Hamels is fungible, Harper is not.

So did the Cubs really risk their chance at Harper for one year of Hamels? And if so, why? Is the issue more about long-term money? We may find out soon enough.

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