There is no tried-and-true formula for calculating a free agent's worth. You can't say X amount of OPS or ERA is worth X amount of dollars. You can't blindly assume comparable players will always get comparable salaries. A player on the open market, ultimately, is worth whatever a particular team is willing to pay.
But in this year's free-agent market, there are five guys whose values are especially difficult to ascertain. They are this market's mystery men, and it will be fascinating to see not just where they land but for how much.
1. Johnny Cueto, RHP
Cueto is the ace of this list, but is he still capable of being the ace of a staff?
The Royals dismissed mild worry about Cueto's elbow condition and went all-in on him to be just that at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The results weren't merely mixed, they were all over the place. Cueto was utterly dominant in some moments, utterly dominated in others. There was an unlikely but not totally implausible theory going around that his look-a-like brother might be subbing in for him in certain outings.
If the Blue Jays had somehow won Games 4, 5 and 6 of the American League Championship Series in succession, the most recent memory we'd have of Cueto is giving a weird, wry smile as the Rogers Centre crowd heckled him after one of the worst postseason starts you'll ever see. Instead, of course, the Royals advanced, and Cueto responded with a brilliant two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets, possibly saving face in the market. His Game 5 start in the AL Division Series against the Astros was also magnificent.
Cueto was hitting 96 mph on the radar gun against the Mets, so that will defray some of the concern over the elbow condition that caused two of his starts with the Reds to be pushed back earlier this past season. Cueto is also 29 years old (younger than David Price and Zack Greinke), and he ranks third in the Majors in ERA (2.80) going back to 2012, despite spending the bulk of that time in the hitter haven known as Great American Ball Park. Cueto has logged over 200 innings and made more than 30 starts in three of the past four seasons.
So ... a lot to like here. And a lot to be worried about, too. In a deep market for starting pitching, Cueto could be in line for something similar to what Jon Lester received from the Cubs last year (six years, $155 million) or he could be forced the play the long waiting game, a la James Shields.
2. Yoenis Cespedes, OF
Before he was even a Met, Cespedes was a pretty divisive player in today's game. Nobody's denying the value of his pure power, of course, but that power didn't always come consistently. We've also seen teams place an increasing premium on on-base percentage in recent years, and Cespedes, despite a rise this year, has rated as average to awful in that category, to date. And while his defense comes with a rocket arm, he's also been known to suffer his share of lapses.
Well, then the whole Mets thing happened. For six or seven weeks, Cespedes, with 17 homers in his first 41 games with New York, was more entertaining than a Broadway show, stood taller than the Empire State Building and loomed larger than the line for the Shake Shack concession stand. If the Mets' season had somehow ended in mid-September (perhaps from a team-wide bout of Shake Shack indigestion), Cespedes would be THE MAN in free agency. Instead, he slumped in the last couple weeks and into October, battled shoulder troubles and made some mental and defensive miscues on the World Series stage.
So now what? At face value, there does not appear to be a wide swath of big-budget teams in dire need of a corner outfield bat commanding a big salary deep into his 30s. But we've been fooled before, and the kind of power Cespedes possesses has been known to make people crank open the wallet.
3. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
Something about this guy makes people dream big. Samardzija is tall, he's personable, he's got great hair, he caught all those touchdown passes at Notre Dame. And oh yeah, Samardzija can throw a baseball really, really hard. He's also been durable since his conversion from the bullpen in 2012, logging north of 200 innings each of the past three years.
But here's another reality about Samardzija: He's below average. Don't shoot the messenger here, as I'm just relaying the ERA+ measurement of Samardzija's output relative to his park and his peers. In his career as a starter, he's got an ERA+ of 96, or four points lower than league average. And on top of that, Samardzija is coming off an abysmal year with the White Sox, for whom he posted a 4.96 ERA and a league-high 228 hits, earned runs (118) and home runs (29) allowed after coming aboard in a high-profile offseason trade.
That raw stuff, though? People will talk themselves into it. They'll see a durable guy whose velocity is intact, who pitched in front of a porous defense and who might be one mechanical tweak away from brilliance. A year ago, Samardzija might have commanded a nine-figure contract on the promise of his stuff alone. Now? That's unlikely, to say the least. But Samardzija might still command a bit of a bidding war because of what people believe he can become, more than what he's been to date.
4. Ian Desmond, SS
Another guy whose value is tremendously different than it was just a year ago. Shortstops capable of 20-homer, 30-double, 20-steal seasons are an incredibly valuable commodity. Valuable enough that Desmond reportedly turned down a seven-year, $107 million extension offer from the Nationals before the 2014 season.
Now, after a 2015 season in which Desmond had a .233/.290/.384 slash line and endured a disastrous defensive stretch to open the season, there are some people who thought he should accept the Nats' $15.8 million qualifying offer to rebuild his value. But he's still a readily available shortstop with 110 homers, 185 doubles, 122 steals and three Silver Slugger Awards through six seasons. Desmond could possibly even move off the position in an effort to expand his versatility and value.
Somebody's going to bet big on Desmond bouncing back in 2016 and beyond. But how big will that bet be? We know it won't be $107 million, but Desmond's leadership persona and past achievements still make him an attractive target.
5. Daniel Murphy, IF
How much money did Murphy earn himself with the first two rounds of the postseason? How much money did he cost himself with a disappointing World Series showing that included one particularly game-changing defensive gaffe?
Hard to answer either question right now. It's not as if teams weren't already well-aware that Murphy's defense can be a detriment, so what we saw in the Series wasn't some big shock. And to place a sizable bet on a nine-game postseason sample (in which Murphy uncorked seven homers and two doubles in 38 at-bats) would seem short-sighted. Also, it's very possible that Murphy is better off getting away from second base and moving to third or even first.
Having said that, what if a change in approach -- a more pull-happy mindset -- is enough to propel the 30-year-old Murphy to sustainable power moving forward? Not that he's going to have many stretches like he did in the NLCS against the Cubs, but an infielder with 20-plus-homer power is a special asset to obtain.
Another thing working in Murphy's favor: He struck out only 38 times in 538 plate appearances this season. At a time when the Royals' contact-hitting approach is one topic du jour, that's especially notable.
Murphy's situation was complex enough that his qualifying offer decision came down to the 11th hour. Ultimately, he decided to turn down the $15.8 million guarantee with the Mets and see what else is in store for him in the open waters. Murphy bet on himself, and now we'll see which team will bet on Murphy.