Jeff Passan on the Problem with Having "Favorites" and "Top Targets" in Free Agency

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Jeff Passan on the Problem with Having “Favorites” and “Top Targets” in Free Agency

Chicago Cubs

Jeff Passan hopped on the radio in Toronto following the Teoscar Hernández trade, which is not normally something that would’ve gotten on my radar in such a way as I thought it worth sharing here. But he shared some things about the nature of baseball offseasons that struck me as so thoughtful – applied in whatever team context you like – that I think it’s worth all of us keeping in the backs of our minds over the next few months.

With a h/t to the Batflip Substack, Passan was on Sportsnet 590 The Fan with JD Bunkis when the subject of “favourites” came up (Canada) – the favorite team to sign Player X, for example. Passan laid down a reality check:

Passan: I’m going to pull back the curtain here a little bit. I don’t know if you follow me on social media — if not, I don’t blame you, because social media is horrible.

JD: You’re actually pretty good at it.

Passan: Well, I appreciate that. And I think people may share that sentiment because I do not pollute their timelines, and I do not pollute their timelines because I think the favourite game is a bunch of garbage. I think favourites change. I think we’re dealing with extremely fickle twenty-something-year-old men whose decisions change as the wind does. And so, to suggest anyone is the favourite for Brandon Nimmo is to suggest that nobody else is going to come in with a dollar more tomorrow.

I don’t know that I’ve heard an insider so plainly lay out how fickle the process of deciding can be. I think we know that players are humans, and as recently suggested by David Ross, there are soft factors that they do care about. Maybe for some guys, that might make a team the “favorite” to sign him, assuming the money is there. But that’s still the thing: in most situations, a “favorite” is only as good as its latest offer.

In other words: be careful about letting yourself thing, or reporting that suggests, a team is the favorite to land a certain player. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong connection there – could be! – but it can all change so quickly. Daily. And change back. So if you want to think about favorites at all, it’s probably best to keep it more abstract: “I think this team might have a good shot at landing this player for the following reasons, and it might even be a better shot than any other team I can think of today.”

Looking at it from the team perspective, then, Passan similarly squashed the idea that there is ever just one plan in place:

JD: Do you think Nimmo is the Jays’ top target then?

Passan: I think he’s a target that they would like, but I think that offseasons are built around having multiple plans.

I swear I’m not trying to, like, avoid answering the question, or equivocate here. This is just the way that modern baseball offseasons work for teams. They understand that free agency is a minefield, and that along the way — the Blue Jays were extremely hopeful on Justin Verlander last year, and had a plan in place, and thought that they had him. The Blue Jays were extremely hopeful on Noah Syndergaard last year, and did an incredible job and were impressive in the interview process, as they were with Verlander. Did that get them Noah Syndergaard? Nope. So, best laid plans, right?

They could sit here and say, ‘This is our number one target, but that means that we’re not going to be able to get this guy, this guy, and this guy.’ And if you put all your eggs in one basket like this, or if you put any of your eggs in one basket, some other team’s going to knock it out of your hands, and your eggs are going to crack on the ground, and you’ll be sad that you don’t get an omelette.

This is just how it works, and how it’s working right now for the Cubs. Yes, they might REALLY want a specific player to pair with another specific player, but they have to know that they might not get both, and getting the first guy means they can’t also get these other two players they like; but if they start with some other player, maybe the whole decision tree has to change. And so on and so on.

And since player decision-making processes can be fickle, it’s impossible to actually have a “number one target.” You might have a whole path that you prefer most of all, but you have to somehow be simultaneously working on other paths, because you can’t just pin it all on a “number one target.”

Being flexible. Being nimble. Having information advantages. Quickly adjusting. All that stuff matters throughout the offseason, making it a little reductive to say – as I admit, I sometimes let myself do – the Cubs want Carlos Correa and Kodai Senga as their top targets, and everything else can follow from there. Again, that might be a path the Cubs really want to go down, but they also have to have other “top” targets that give them other paths to follow, which might also make them perfectly happy.

So, when you hear conflicting rumors about things the Cubs might want to do, well, that could be because they would be happy to do either of them. So they are pursuing both things at once, even if they are entirely contradictory.

And when the Cubs don’t go the path you want them to go, or get the guy you want them to get, it’ll be worth asking how much of that is actually on them? And how much is on the fickle nature of free agency, and the practical requirement to have multiple plans in place at the same time?


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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.