Miles...Mikolas? Who is Miles Mikolas?
This was the $15.5 million question that Cardinals fans collectively asked themselves Tuesday morning when Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports initially broke the news that Mikolas was headed to St. Louis on what was later announced as a two year deal worth a hair under $8 million per season.
As Viva El Birdos' resident Miles Mikolas expert (hey, I remember hearing the name in now-obsolete baseball video games from a half-decade ago), I have spent the past 48 hours deprived of food, water, and sleep while I
skimmed through his Baseball Reference page meticulously dissected years of game footage.
The Quadruple-A starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter-again was banished by MLB hitters to Bunkyo, Japan, a Tokyo municipality over 4,100 miles from his hometown of Jupiter, Florida. Mikolas burst onto the scene in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) with a 2.18 ERA in 62 starts during his three-year tenure with the Yomiuri Giants. In each season, his strikeout percentage crept up from 19.2% to 22.0% to 25.1% in 2017. Mikolas walked just 23 batters over the course of 27 starts last season, good for a walk rate of 3.1%.
Here is what FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan had to say about Mikolas' arsenal in his writeup of the 6'5" right-hander:
Even though Mikolas was good in both 2015 and 2016, this past year he took it to another level. He missed a chunk of time in 2016 with shoulder discomfort, but he did successfully put that behind him. And then, in 2017, Mikolas found himself throwing harder. Across the board, all of his pitches were thrown with an extra couple ticks. Nothing about Mikolas’ repertoire is overpowering, but instead of throwing a fastball around 88-90, now it’s more like 90-92. Mikolas also just threw one of the best sliders in either Japanese league, and he complements his best pitches with a mid-70s curve.
Mikolas overcomes his lack of electric stuff through a game plan focused on pounding the strike zone and inducing plenty of ground balls without surrendering many free passes.
Ironically, yet fittingly, former Cardinal Mike Leake just so happens to factor into this picture.
For a variety of reasons, I think Leake's effectiveness in St. Louis was grossly overlooked at times. Before signing with the Cardinals in the 2015-16 offseason, he had never posted a FIP- better than 102. (For context, 100 is league average with a lower figure reflecting a more productive pitcher.) He proceeded to answer the bell to the tune of a FIP- of 94 and 91 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Between those two seasons, Leake amassed 5.6 fWAR, a mark only Carlos Martinez could top among Cardinals hurlers.
With the postseason roster eligibility deadline nearing, the Cardinals dealt Leake to a pitching-starved Mariners club in August along with international bonus pool money in exchange for...Rayder Ascanio? The Cardinals were essentially dumping salary on Seattle. Before accounting for Leake's 2021 mutual option, St. Louis freed up $11 million per year over the next three seasons. (The Cardinals are still on the hook for $15 million of Leake's remaining contract.) Losing Leake, of course, left an innings void in the Cardinals rotation, a hole that they are now devoting at least $7.75 million to fill.
So by replacing Leake with Mikolas, St. Louis only gains an extra $3.25 million or so over both of the next two seasons. The Cardinals, creators of their own mint for all intents and purposes, will be pushed to financial brink in 2018, a mere $63.6 million standing between them and the vaunted luxury tax.
Perhaps I am being over-cynical. The Cardinals, like all Major League teams, have access to much more information and data regarding any player than you and I do, especially those from foreign leagues. Maybe the Cardinals brass thinks Mikolas will be the superior pitcher going forward. The only publicly available projections we have on both players is Steamer, which projects Leake to outperform Mikolas in 2018 by 25 FIP points, though ZiPS likes Mikolas a lot more than Steamer.
Because Mikolas is inked to a shorter-term contract, he will still save the Cardinals a combined $22.5 million between 2018 through the end of Leake’s contract in 2020 ($5 million buyout of 2021) compared to simply keeping Leake. That is by no means pocket change, but St. Louis already possesses lots of financial flexibility going forward. Adam Wainwright's $19.5 million salary comes off the books after this upcoming season. The following offseason, the Cardinals can shed about $30 million more depending on how Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko age, and whether or not the club exercises their options. Nearly an additional $30 million will open up when Yadier Molina and Brett Cecil see their current deals expire after 2020.
I have no problem with the signing of Miles Mikolas in a vacuum. I will absolutely be pulling for him as he embarks on a comeback journey now spanning over 8,000 miles. But all decisions have to be evaluated with context. It is the job of the front office to maximize their team's on-field performance. Unless spending slightly more has larger ramifications on the franchise as a whole, it is never good practice to sacrifice value. When we talk about "the little things" the Cardinals will need to do to return to the postseason and possibly chase down the Cubs to recapture to division crown, they aren't limited to the confinements of the field itself.