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A Serial Winter Meeting: Tracking rumors through the mill to find truth

One great piece of pop culture begets thoughts on the Winter Meetings

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Serial has taken over the Internet.

A spinoff from the popular This American Life show, host Sarah Koenig has spun a fascinating story out of a true crime case in Baltimore. It's the most-listened-to podcast ever. It's already inspired a backlash and then a backlash-to-the-backlashThere are podcasts devoted to analyzing the podcast, which is the most Inception thing ever written on this site.

But, the reason it's so fascinating is for the same reason why we like Sherlock Holmes stories or Agatha Christie or any manner of crime procedurals on CBS. We like mystery and we like trying to figure things out before they're revealed.

Serial is a sad story. At its heart, it's about a young girl who was killed far, far too soon. The story itself has been told before, with someone incarcerated while still maintaining their innocence. What makes Serial special is how Koenig spins the story into something more. She breathes life into rumors, into tracking down a pay phone outside Best Buy.

The telling makes the story interesting.

A similar phenomenon may be going on in the rumor mill. During the Winter Meetings in particular, rumors fuel much of the conversation. Is this team looking to trade Player X? Has Free Agent Y narrowed his list of possible landing places?

The rumors themselves are not nearly as entertaining as the story they tell.

Take, for instance, the latest Astros rumor, which says the team is interested in trading for Cole Hamels from the Phillies. That immediately sent us scurrying to come up with possible trade scenarios. We weighed what would be too much to give up for the 31-year-old pitcher. We tried to figure out how much Hamels could help the 2015 Astros and how much his salary could affect the club in future seasons.

But, we also did what Koenig does every week. We dug in and left no small part of the story unturned. What's Hamels' no-trade clause like? Is he likely to waive it? How has he played in recent seasons? Does he fit in Minute Maid Park? How will he age?

The latest episode of Serial focused on rumors. Koenig makes Serial compelling because nothing is too small for her investigation. She's spent a year of her life running down this story and she's going to exhaust every last lead.

When we saw the Chase Headley rumors break, linking the free agent third baseman with the Astros, we ran down the rumors in a similar way. We tried to figure out the source. Was the reporter credible? Was he some teenaged rumor jockey on Twitter or could he have legitimate sources?

The presence of no corroboration from national sources threw doubt on the rumor. In fact, within the next 24 hours, reports surfaced that the Astros were not that interested in Headley. That's how quickly a rumor can blossom and then blow away in the wind.

Did the Astros really make Headley an offer? Why hadn't he accepted it, if they went four years and $65 million? Headley signed this morning for four years and $50 million with the Yankees. You'd be hard-pressed to believe he had an offer for $15 million more and turned it down.

The reason why we love Serial is the same reason we love rumors. Grant Brisbee expounded on this exact phenomenon better than I could today. Here's a quote from his superior piece:

With that mere fragment of association, my mind starts racing. Kemp on the Giants. Kemp in AT&T Park. How's the defense going to hold up? How much ground would he have to cover? He's a strong enough hitter to make the park something of a non-factor. What about the contract? Would the Dodgers eat money? Would the Dodgers even trade with the Giants? How old is Kemp? What sort of knee problems did he have again? Let me see those second-half stats again.

We all do this. As soon as I heard the Hamels rumor, I did this. It makes baseball in the wintertime fun. If not fun, then not having baseball becomes bearable, as MLB Trade Rumors becomes your startup screen in Firefox.

But, as we ponder rumors getting out there and the Astros, remember this piece from Brisbee's masterpiece:

Which makes you realize that the rumors that escape are usually the ones that are supposed to escape. That doesn't have to be cynical -- there are probably more than a few "What's the harm?" leaks, more than a few "I respect this writer, so here's a favor" leaks. But there are also "I have clear ulterior motives" leaks. It's just good business, on both sides. An agent who represents a client getting zero interest might let it slip that he's getting interest from three teams, hoping to construct his own reality. A team frustrated with a target's asking price might let it slip that, well, it doesn't matter because they have interest in several other free agents at the same position, even if that's not quite true.

The Astros are a smart bunch. Sure, they may get their systems breached from time to time, but they know what's up. If a rumor gets floated out there, it's because they (or the agent) want it out there. Don't believe Jeff Luhnow when he tells you that it's all "internet rumors" that the Astros have explored Jason Castro and Dexter Fowler trades. They have, but probably found the price not worth the deal.

Similarly, these Hamels rumors have a purpose. The Astros are trying to establish themselves as a place guys want to play. They want to be a destination, not a way station. They want to be seen as turning the corner, not struggling to get to .500.

Leaking stuff about Hamels helps reinforce how serious they are about improving this team. It was a calculated risk. Nothing may happen. Fans may turn on Luhnow if he can't get any of these deals done.

For now, though, it gives us hope. We can play along this winter, watching a fascinating story unfold. Just like with Serial, the ending isn't as important as the story itself.