Are the Cubs gearing up for a run at Bryce Harper?

Cubs fans are salivating at the prospect of landing star outfielder Bryce Harper next year. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- He was there, though only in spirit.

Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper was omnipresent at the recently completed Chicago Cubs fan convention simply because there’s growing sentiment that he could be on the team after he hits free agency in November.

His name was uttered in formal panel discussions all weekend and then some more in informal interviews with current Cubs, especially his good friend Kris Bryant.

“I guess the only thing I can tell you is his dog’s name is Wrigley, so he must like us a little,” Bryant said with a smile over the weekend. “I would love to have him, but I don’t want to bring that up with him because it’s tough.”

It doesn’t help quash the talk when Bryant and his wife have a "game night" with Harper and his wife, like they did earlier this offseason. Then there’s the ongoing social media hinting of a reunion between the two Las Vegas natives that has taken place over the past 12 months or so.

“It’s probably going to be the most exciting free agency ever,” Bryant said. “Regardless of what he does this year, people are going to pay a lot for him, and rightfully so.”

Paying him is a different conversation, but the idea of Bryant and Harper in the same lineup, along with Anthony Rizzo, has Cubs fans salivating.

“We don’t talk too much about it,” Bryant said causally.

That’s OK because everyone else is. At one of the first panel discussions, a young fan asked team president Theo Epstein where he could get his Harper/Cubs jersey.

“You need to ask Kris Bryant,” Epstein quipped. “He seems to have quite a few.”

Harper’s name even came up in a "kids only" panel. Eventually, Rizzo had to remind the crowd that the Cubs made the playoffs three straight years without Harper. Rizzo jokingly said fans “have serious issues” if they’re begging for Harper after three trips to the National League Championship Series.

Also fueling the Harper-to-Cubs mania this offseason is Giancarlo Stanton's landing with the Yankees, presumably taking New York out of the running for Harper. There is also just the lack of spending around baseball this offseason.

"Teams are 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,” Epstein said Friday.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts added Saturday: “What you’re seeing from teams out there is they would rather have dry powder [money available] a year from now.”

When Ricketts talks about other teams, he should include his own. The Cubs have been active in free agency this winter but haven’t invested a lot. The longest deal they gave out was three years to Tyler Chatwood, paying him just over $13 million a season. That’s a far cry from the contracts they doled out in recent years to players such as Jon Lester ($155 million for six years) and Jason Heyward ($184 million for eight years). The Cubs will have plenty of "dry powder" for next winter.

As of right now, there has been no public or private indication from the Cubs that they would spend on Harper, who could cost between $300 million and $400 million over the course of an expected contract. Maybe more. Signing Harper would probably mean a ticket out of town, eventually, for either Bryant or Rizzo. Or maybe both.

But that’s all for later. The Cubs could boast an incredible offense for at least a few seasons.

“When you look at him as a player and what he’s done and how young he is, you’d be foolish not to,” Bryant said. “He’s just in a good spot.”

The last time Bryant and Harper played on the same team was for a Las Vegas travel squad called the Nevada Wildcats when Bryce was 13 and Bryant was 14. Harper pitched a one-hitter and hit a home run while Bryant also homered in a 2-1 win. How many times would they go deep together, next to each other in the lineup, all these years later? It’s on everyone’s mind, even if Bryant’s free-agent pitch to Harper hasn’t been made -- yet.

“Maybe next offseason we’ll ramp it up some more,” Bryant said with a cat-ate-the-bird smile. “It’s fun to think about, but I’m not making those decisions.”

If the convention was any indication, Cubs fans already have made theirs.