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Do the Cardinals Need to Make a Decision on Miles Mikolas?

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The Cards’ best find of the offseason was a failed major league starter who headed to Japan and learned how to pitch. Now they have to decide how big a part of their future he needs to be.

St Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Author’s note: this post was written prior to Tuesday’s game against the Pirates, with the exception of the first inning. Thus, the numbers do not reflect whatever Mikolas does the rest of the way tonight. — A.

You know, it’s a little hard to recall now, but there was a time, not really all that long ago, when the St. Louis Cardinals were being excoriated by various entities for signing Miles Mikolas, specifically in light of Yu Darvish being available. Here were the Cardinals, cheaping out yet again, signing a scrap heap reclamation project from Japan instead of the best free agent starter on the market. (For the record, I was very much on board with signing Darvish as well, late in the offseason when he was, shockingly, still available, but I never saw Mikolas as a cheap bet placed instead of Darvish, in terms of where the organisation chose to spend their money.)

To be fair, it wasn’t yet as clear at that point that Darvish’s arm health was a serious question mark; he was coming off an excellent late-season run with the Dodgers, followed by two great postseason starts, and then two utterly horrific World Series starts. It’s easy to forget Darvish was actually really good in the division and league championship series, because of how badly things went against Houston in the World Series, but two weeks before Darvish was a choker, and a coward, and finished, he was one of the greatest deadline pickups anyone could remember. Unfortunately for Yu himself and the Cubs, it now looks like those World Series struggles had more to do with his arm breaking down than his head or heart or random bad luck.

Still, the point is that the Cardinals took a lot of flak from some fans, and some analysts, for investing in a failed big-league starter who had to go to Japan to find success, rather than a Japanese superstar who had come and conquered the American shores. Now, with not quite one full season back in the states under his belt, Miles Mikolas has panned out as essentially the steal of the offseason, with absolutely no one still questioning why the Redbirds felt he was worth taking a risk on.

Instead, it’s fair at this point to ask whether the Cardinals should be looking to extend the relationship or not. And if not, is another decision necessary?

Here’s the skinny on Mikolas’s contract situation: he signed a two-year contract this past offseason, worth $15.5 million total. The money is an even split; he’ll make the same $7.8 in 2019 that he made this year. There was language put into the contract that makes Mikolas a free agent following the 2019 season; due to his low amount of service the first time around in MLB, he’s not actually reached the service time milestone necessary to avoid the arbitration system, and thus it had to be put into the contract. But since there’s been some confusion over the course of the season, I figured it was important to spell out here that yes, Miles Mikolas will be a free agent after the 2019 season. And in fact, part of the reason his contract was only for two years is because he insisted on it being relatively short, hoping to prove himself quickly and set himself up for a good payday while he’s still in the prime of his career. The Cardinals, for their part, tried to push for a longer deal when negotiating.

So that’s where that stands. The Cards have their most consistently good starter of 2018 under contract for one more season. That, in itself, is not a bad thing; particularly when considering Mikolas just turned 30 less than a month ago, it would seem that 2019 should be an excellent year to have him under contract, and the years after probably less of an easy win.

However, it’s also worth noting that the Cardinal rotation, in a general sort of sense, is in a somewhat precarious position currently. We’ve seen injuries take huge bites out of the rotation this year, including Michael Wacha missing the majority of the season and Carlos Martinez struggle to avoid the training table multiple times. Jack Flaherty looks like a future anchor, so long as his health holds up, but beyond him the Cardinals really lack any sure-fire rotation standouts amongst their young crop of starters. The pitching pipeline has also, for the moment at least, largely dried up, with Ryan Helsley really the only starting prospect of note in the high minors who has yet to have made his way to the big leagues. (And his health is obviously a question as well, so who knows whether to count on him or not.)

The rotation has the horses to be great in 2019, and beyond that the future is murkier. Wacha is a free agent after 2019 just like Mikolas. The kids who have made their debuts this year are intriguing, but none are slam dunk successes. Alex Reyes’s future is cloudier than ever. There are exciting arms in the minors, from Helsley to Griffin Roberts to Jacob Schlesener to Genesis Cabrera, but all of them have serious question marks attached. Some are just very far away, some have yet to turn stuff into performance, some have to prove they can stay healthy.

So the question that has to be asked is this: do the Cardinals have a good plan for their rotation after 2019? Carlos and Flaherty will still be around, but two great starters does not a rotation make, even if we have no concerns at all about Martinez’s durability after this very strange season.

Which brings us back around to Miles Mikolas, and more questions. Should the Cardinals try to extend their relationship with the big right-hander beyond next season? Is it necessary to try and figure out an extension this offseason, rather than waiting until later, or even letting him get to free agency? Or, if it doesn’t look like Mikolas will be sticking around past this initial contract, does the club have to consider trading him for more assets?

That last question, of course, points toward a fairly dark and concerning timeline, and may not be something we can really consider this offseason no matter what. The Cardinals are far too close to being a playoff team to think of dealing away their most consistent starter this offseason; if anything, a bad start to 2019 could necessitate retooling at the trade deadline, but that’s basically the reality for nearly every team in baseball, minus two or three who are so far ahead of the field right now that a bad season is basically unimaginable. (Though, to be fair, the Dodgers would seem to be one of those clubs, and we see them scratching and clawing for their playoff lives right now. So, no sure things in this game, really.)

So for now, I think, we have to table any thoughts of what Mikolas would bring on the market, simply because the Cardinals are not in a position where dealing him would make any sense.

Thus, we will move on to the question of potentially extending Mikolas, and when it would make the most sense to think about doing so. The Cardinals could, of course, make no decision at all, allow the 2019 season to play out, and then decide what to do. And realistically, that’s probably the most likely scenario. At this point, you have five and a half months, plus spring training, worth of track record to judge Mikolas. That’s certainly a fair body of work, but not so much that you have absolute confidence in the performance, I would imagine.

For what it’s worth, it would be hard to see how Mikolas could have been much better this season than he has. His ERA for the year is just 3.04; his FIP is 3.41. (Those numbers translate to an ERA- of 77 and an FIP- of 84, by the way.) It’s very surprising to see a pitcher having this level of success with such a low strikeout rate — season K% of just 16.8% — but in fairness, the ratio of strikeouts to walks is very much in line with what we would expect a #2/3 starter to produce. I really do believe Mikolas’s low K rate is as much about his approach as an inability to miss bats; he attacks the zone in a way very few pitchers do, intent of getting ahead, and staying ahead, of every hitter who steps in against him.

If there’s any reason for concern, it’s that Mikolas has been moderately less successful in the second half of the season than early on; since the beginning of July, his FIP has been 3.61, as opposed to the 3.27 he posted through the end of June. Still, there’s not much to suggest Mikolas is much worse than a mid-3s ERA sort of starter, and that’s an immensely valuable resource.

So if we expect Mikolas to be roughly what he has been moving forward, next year we might think he should once again be about a 3.50 ERA/FIP sort of pitcher. Maybe you think he’s a little worse, maybe you think he’s a little better. But let’s just agree a mid-three ERA would be a pretty unsurprising outcome, okay? That would make him something like the 22nd to 26th-best pitcher in baseball this year. He’d be in a bucket with names like Carlos Carrasco, Luis Severino, Jon Lester, and David Price. (Shoutout to David Price, having a very quietly good season.) That’s the sort of pitcher you absolutely want to keep around, so long as you aren’t paying him like, well, David Price. (sad face)

The age for Mikolas is a bit of a concern. Next year will be his age 30 season, and we’ve seen what happens to pitchers once they start getting much past 30. If I can interject a bit of my own bias in here, I happen to think Mikolas has one of the lowest-stress arm actions I’ve ever seen, and could throw until he’s Bartolo Colon’s age, but mechanics are of course just one factor, and betting too heavily on that one aspect of a pitcher’s makeup is a bad idea. So one has to ask whether relying on a pitcher in his 30s to stay healthy and age well is a great idea. And you might answer that question in the negative. I wouldn’t argue too stridently against you if you did.

On the other hand, if the Cardinals want to maintain or improve their rotation going forward, at least some of the job is going to have to be done by older pitchers. As I said, this current Dakota Hudson/Austin Gomber group of pitchers is the last in the pipeline for a bit, unless Alex Reyes comes in next season and becomes the guy we were hoping he could be, and this current group isn’t the match of Martinez/Miller/Wacha/Rosenthal. Even looking to free agency, you’re not really getting any younger. Patrick Corbin is name that’s gotten a lot of play around here, and he’s certainly intriguing, but he’s only a year younger than Mikolas and has already had his elbow reconstructed once. Dallas Keuchel is a very good pitcher, but will pitch next season at 31. Lance Lynn will be 32 and has been very up and down this season. Not the worst idea, but you’re getting older and possibly more expensive.

My point is this: of the options on the market in the short term, Mikolas is as good a bet as any, it would seem. There simply aren’t that many top of the rotation pitchers making it to free agency in their twenties, and the Cards’ farm system may be entering a fallow period in terms of starting pitching production. With all that in mind, keeping Miles Mikolas on beyond 2019 might have to be made a fairly high priority if the club wants to avoid a pitching crisis after next season.

As for what it would take to extend Mikolas at this point, it’s tough to say. I could see a five year deal covering his age 30-34 seasons making sense. I could see pushing for a shorter contract to cover 30-33 as well. The money, I really have no idea, and am not honestly all that worried about. The Cardinals have survived just fine the last couple seasons paying Adam Wainwright nearly $20 million to produce almost nothing; paying Miles Mikolas 15+ to hopefully replicate this season would be a plus, rather than a concern.

The timing is an interesting question; I could see someone thinking this offseason is too early, since you have Mikolas under contract for next season already. Better to wait, that thought goes, see how he looks early next year, and then make a decision. The problem there, of course, is that Mikolas may or may not be interested in negotiating once the season begins; we see all the time that players set themselves a mental deadline of Opening Day or spring training to talk about contract stuff, after which they prefer to see things play out on the field. If that’s the case, then this offseason could be your best chance. Or, even if Miles isn’t the sort to cut talks off during the season (I have literally no clue), once a player gets so close to free agency, sometimes they decide they really want to see what the market would say about them.

The upcoming offseason is going to be a fascinating one for the Cardinals; they have quite a lot of money coming off the books, and not a ton of spots where they really need to spend. That being said, there are also places where spending now could very much help avoid crises down the road, and deciding what to do about Miles Mikolas probably falls into that category. It’s not an absolute necessity the Cards keep him around; it’s not as if you’re facing down the end of an era with your best player and potentially a huge rebuild after he leaves. But this is a club dedicated to perpetual contention, and some core-level stability is very important to meeting that goal year after year. To that end, the quality and bulk innings Miles Mikolas brings to the table is a huge boon for a team whose starting rotation looks to have both great potential and high levels of uncertainty coming in the very near future.

It doesn’s seem like a decision on Miles Mikolas is something that has to be made immediately. Baseball front offices in general, though, have to always be looking down the road, anticipating the next big crisis before it really ever begins to show up. The Cardinals made a brilliant decision this past offseason in making Mikolas a priority, and they’ve reaped the benefits of that decision all year. Sooner than it seems, they’ll have to decide how important it is to keep that player in the fold. Baseball happens fast, and there isn’t always time to wait and consider. It may seem like there’s time, but that doesn’t mean the clock isn’t ticking.