Last week, we here at CBS Sports revealed this winter's top 60 MLB free-agent rankings. Despite the list being longer than usual as a nod to the class size, there were still some notable exclusions. Some, like those of infielder Jonathan Villar and reliever Keone Kela, were self-explanatory: both have shaky off-the-field reputations, and are coming off bad or injury-shortened years. (One source joked that Villar's chances of landing overseas were better than his chances of signing a big-league deal.) Other snubs, however, may have been tougher to understand, including those of four former All-Star players: Chris Archer, Ryan Braun, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jon Lester.
Rest assured, we have our reasons for not ranking any of the above. Allow us to explain.
Archer is one of the most likable players in baseball, and therefore one of the easiest to drum up hope for. Even independent of that, you can see why he'd be a tempting buy-low candidate for a team in need. He's only 32 years old, making him the youngest player in this article, and he still missed a ton of bats with his trademark slider during an otherwise disastrous stint in Pittsburgh.
Alas, we couldn't find the justification for ranking Archer after he missed 2020 to undergo surgery to treat his thoracic outlet syndrome. The operation doesn't have the same name or brand recognition that Tommy John surgery does, but it's become more notorious in recent years because it appears more damaging to a pitcher's chances of returning to form.
Obviously you hope Archer proves to be the exception. Without knowing if he can, the most reasonable option was to leave him unranked.
Presuming Braun doesn't retire, his first dip into free agency is the result of the Brewers choosing a $4-million buyout over a $15-million option. (Only five Brewers are projected to make more in 2021 than what Milwaukee will pay Braun to not play for them.) You can understand the Brewers' decision: Braun is coming off his first sub-replacement-level year, having posted a career-worst 101 OPS+ in 39 games while primarily playing right field.
It's a small sample, but Braun's season was almost exactly what you would look for if you were trying to identify a slowing bat using statistics. His average and maximum exit velocities dipped; his launch angle went way up, right along with his pop-up rate, suggesting he lost control of his barrel, at minimum; he walked less frequently and both chased and whiffed more frequently; and so on. None of this ought to surprise, considering he's days away from turning 37 years old.
Still, it can be hard to accept reality whenever a hitter of Braun's caliber appears to be near the end. You can reason and hope that a change of scenery will do him good, and that he can author a more fitting sendoff. Perhaps he will, but the odds don't seem particularly kind.
It's hard to rank someone who has barely played in three years. Between injuries and his decision to opt-out of this season, Cespedes recorded just 191 plate appearances since the start of 2018 -- and 157 of those came in 2018. He's since almost missed the equivalent of two full years.
What Cespedes hasn't missed is his birthday. He turned 35 years old in October, putting him in the proverbial danger zone, so far as age-related decay goes. Factor in his rust and whatever toll his lower-body injuries have taken on him, and it would be surprising if he strode into 2021 and was able to hit 20 to 30 percent better than the league-average, the way he did during his prime.
Of course, Cespedes doesn't have to hit that well to be worth a roster spot. It's just important to remember that the absence of declining production doesn't mean he's the same hitter he was.
Lester has had a storied career: he's won three World Series championships; he's made five All-Star Games; he's finished top-five in Cy Young Award voting three times; and he's just seven wins away from becoming the fifth pitcher to debut in 2000 or later and win 200 games, joining Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, and Mark Buehrle. Even so, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for what his age-37 season could hold based on what he did in 2020.
To generalize for a moment, successful starters tend to either miss bats or miss barrels. Lester doesn't do either anymore. He ranked in the 38th percentile in exit velocity and in the fourth percentile in whiff rate. There's no magic potion available, or new wrinkle apparent, that is going to change that heading forward. He's put more than 2,500 regular-season innings on his arm, and another 154 in the postseason; it stinks, but this is what happens.
The best argument for employing Lester in '21, then, hinges on his variability. He had a 5.16 ERA in 12 starts, but he allowed one run or fewer in six of those and two runs or fewer in seven. The problem is … well, the Cubs didn't seem able to identify when he didn't have it in those over five outings. Is there any reason to think they'll have a better grasp on it next year? Heck, is there any reason to believe Lester's season will break down that cleanly next year? Probably not.
The second-best argument for employing Lester in '21 has to do with his leadership abilities and his other soft skills, to which we say, fair enough.