Column:

Bryce Harper watch begins early on the North Side

The ball started rolling last summer when Bryce Harper posted a photo of himself and Kris Bryant on Instagram with the message “#Back2BackOneDay.”

After Harper admitted he enjoyed trolling the media for speculating on his future free-agency plans, Bryant conceded his Las Vegas buddy was “stirring the pot” for laughs. Whether Bryzzo would be adding a new partner in the future was a topic Harper concluded was buzz-worthy, and if nothing else, Harper knows how to create a buzz.

“He's just totally having fun because I think a lot of people were talking about that,” Bryant said. “He's funny, man. He knows how to get people talking about stuff, and I love that about him."

We now might be one step closer to that “one day” becoming reality. New Marlins CEO Derek Jeter gift-wrapped slugger Giancarlo Stanton and handed him to the Yankees in a salary dump for the ages, a deal that should eliminate New York from Bryce Watch 2018 and perhaps lead Harper to the North Side.

While it seems like an unlikely pairing given Harper’s expected $400 million to $500 million price tag and future payroll obligations after Bryant and others have their paydays, you never know what the Cubs are up to (or, in Instagram lingo, “#WhatAreTheCubsUpTo?”)

It was only last summer Yankee Stadium was considered the most likely destination for Harper, who seems to crave the media spotlight that seldom shines on sleepy Washington. Before the All-Star Game in Miami, someone asked Harper whether he could hit 80 to 90 home runs playing in Yankee Stadium. He good-naturedly declined to discount the possibility.

“I try to hit the ball all over the field when I can, and if I can get an accident inside I try to pull it,” he replied. “I’m not sure. It’s something I have no idea (if it’s possible). I don’t even think about what’s big or small or anything like that at what field I play at.”

Unfortunately, we’ll never know now that the Yankees have their megabucks slugger in hand and won’t be able to afford Harper. Assuming he leaves the Nationals next offseason, he will have to find another big spender that can win immediately and help sell his brand.

Fortunately for Harper, no one knows branding like the Cubs.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the Cubs will sign Harper, who coincidently has a dog named Wrigley — and not because of the chewing gum.

They’re going to have to pay Bryant eventually and perhaps extend Anthony Rizzo as well. Whoever sticks around from the curse-breaking core of kids — Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Carl Edwards Jr. — deserves to be paid down the road as well.

But with all the new premium clubs on tap at Wrigley, not to mention the exorbitant ticket prices and a new TV deal after the current one expires in two years, the Cubs should have the resources to take on Harper — if they so wish. And as long as Harper keeps getting his picture taken next to Bryant, as he did during a recent Golden Knights game in Las Vegas, the pot will continue to be stirred.

Face it: Wrigleyville is a preferred destination for prime-time players these days. The Cubs were among the seven finalists for Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani while also landing on the short list of Stanton’s desired teams. That list did not include the Cardinals, proving once again that this is not your father’s Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.

As the winter meetings convene Sunday in Orlando, Fla., a patented Theo Epstein surprise would be welcomed by Cubs fans.

The three-year, $38 million deal for back-end starter Tyler Chatwood didn’t exactly move the needle, but it’s still early. Perhaps picking apart the Marlins’ carcass for athletic outfielder Christian Yelich or acquiring Rays ace Chris Archer, could trigger a mini-remodeling job this offseason.

The more money they save, the more they have for next winter, when the hashtag hits the fan.

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Twitter @PWSullivan

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