The Hot Stove is a fun time of year. Even though baseball isn't being played, there are a lot of baseball goings on. The roster moves tend to come fairly steadily from the morning after the final out of the World Series through early January. One of the foundational terms of art in baseball rumormongering has always been "interest" and the offshoot "interested." As in: St. Louis has interest in Mark Reynolds. Or: The Cardinals are interested in Jon Lester.
You may have noticed that I didn't pull those examples out of thin air. They were both recently grist for ye olde rumour mill. One of the Cards' rumored interests came to fruition with the signing of Reynolds. The other didn't—the Cards weren't even a member of the final group of teams bidding on Lester.
A club can be interested in a free agent for several reasons.
First and most obviously, they want to sign him and want to know how much they should bid in order to have a realistic shot at acquiring him. This occurs when a club sets out after the free agent that they have deemed one of their top targets. Examples that seem to fit this situation include the Cardinals and Jhonny Peralta last offseason, the Mariners with Nelson Cruz this Hot Stove, or the Cubs with Lester. The club has the payroll to devote to this free agent, an idea of the market going into the bidding, and they want lock the player up.
Secondly, a club wants to know how a player's market is developing in order to see if he's a value. Think of this as due diligence regarding secondary targets. These players may not be atop a club's offseason wish list but, if the bidding doesn't develop as anticipated, they might be an acceptable signing if they could be had for a contract that is smaller than anticipated in early November, either in terms of dollars or years.
Another reason: a club wants to see how the free-agent market is developing solely because of how it relates to players already under their control. This helps a team value its assets. If the price for late-inning relievers has gotten astronomical, perhaps trading a reliever under club control becomes a possibility since it might net a valuable player in return. Or such information might help a team determine how much to offer a player when negotiating a contract extension.
Teams could have a variety of motivations for contacting a player's agent. And the player's agent has no incentive to convey the reasoning behind a team's phone call when talking to a reporter. In fact, an agent has the opposite motivation. The agent will likely be as vague as possible in an attempt to create a perception through the media that a player has as many suitors as possible, in an attempt to drive up the bidding.
For example, it's seems within the realm of possibility that an agent might say something like this, "The A's, Mets, Twins, Giants, and Cardinals have all called on Asdrubal Cabrera, Jon." That is, each of those teams contacted Cabrera's agent and is interested in what the market for Cabrera is, as Jon Heyman shared via Twitter on Wednesday, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are all interested in bidding for Cabrera's services in 2015 and beyond.
Another dynamic, as noted by Joe on Twitter, is that the point in time when a club expressed its interest is left out of such relayed information. It's possible the Cardinals could have contacted Cabrera's agent on November 11 (the first day of the GM meetings) and, after finding the market not to their liking, decided to sign Dean Anna and trade for Ty Kelly instead. It could also be that the Cardinals, ever the opportunists, noticed that Cabrera had not signed yet and decided to see if the market had passed the infielder by and if he consequently might be open to a team-friendly contract. The Cards could also have genuine interest in inking Cabrera to be their utility infielder and have had ongoing contract with his agent. Although, with the way Mozeliak has worked in recent years when it comes to signing free agents, this seems the least likely.
It will be interesting to see if the level of interest the Cardinals have in Cabrera gives rise to anything more than a passing mention in a Heyman tweet.