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Locking up Miles Mikolas before free agency

Mikolas is a prime candidate to sign an extension, so what would that look like?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I proposed a potential extension for Paul Goldschmidt to sign. A lot of commentators said he wouldn’t sign it and that it was too low. That was kind of the point. I don’t think a Goldschmidt extension makes sense otherwise. Personally, I’d rather not re-sign Goldschmidt. Ignoring the 2018-2019 free agents, Xander Bogaerts, Nolan Arenado, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon are all better uses of that money, because they are all at least two years younger and in the case of Bogaerts* - my personal pie in the sky dream - much, much younger. Then, yeah there’s this year’s free agents too, who I won’t mention by name, because people are getting tired of that.

*Bogaerts gets signed, move Carpenter back to 1st, DeJong to 3rd. When one of the 3B prospects is ready, either Wong’s contract will be over or you trade him and move DeJong to 2nd. I want this to happen so badly.

Unlike Marcell Ozuna and arguably Goldschmidt, there is actually incentive on both sides to get a deal done soon for Milas Mikolas. Mikolas signed a two-year deal instead of three because he wanted to prove himself and get on the free agent market by 31, so there is reason to believe he wants to test that market. However, he is also likely coming off what will end up being the best season of his career. If he plays to his projections (or worse) in 2019, there’s a chance he will get less money in free agency than if he signed an extension now. It’s not a small chance either.

That would seem to suggest the Cardinals have no incentive to sign him. After all, if I expect Mikolas to be cheaper in the free agent market, why not wait? Fair point. But the Cardinals pitching situation over the next few years needs a Mikolas. Michael Wacha is very likely leaving for another team in free agency. Adam Wainwright is likely done after this year. Carlos Martinez and Jack Flaherty will be here, but that’s pretty much it as far as reliable bets past 2019 are concerned. Alex Reyes is very much not a sure thing at the moment, and the prospects below him are even less of a sure thing. Ryan Helsley threw 100 innings total last year and Genesis Cabrera is still thought of as a likely reliever.

Now, most of these are normal modern day baseball problems with pitching staffs. But without another reliable pitcher beside Flaherty and Martinez, you are relying on a lot of those pitchers to pan out. Sign Mikolas, hope one of the three pitchers mentioned above take a step forward, and put Daniel Ponce De Leon or John Gant or whoever in the 5th spot and it’s a lot better situation, and requires less things needing to go right. (This would be part of my argument for signing a free agent starter RIGHT NOW, less for 2019 and more because our 2020 staff looks... pretty empty at the moment.)

We need to set a baseline WAR for Mikolas before the extension years would kick in. The projection systems are slightly different. ZiPS predicts a 3 WAR season over 175.2 IP while Steamer predicts a 2.7 WAR season over 198 IP. As much as I want to just combine these two projections together, I’m going to have to stick with ZiPS inning projection. Both 198 innings and the combined 187 are projections that belong to pitchers with more of a track record than Mikolas has. The amount of pitchers who I would feel comfortable projecting 187 innings from is probably less than ten. Steamer’s projection over 175.2 IP is 2.4 WAR, so now I’ll split the difference and say Mikolas is a 2.7 WAR pitcher over 175.2 IP in 2019.

The trickiest part of an extension is the years. I picked a five-year deal for Goldschmidt, because I felt it was necessary. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a five-year deal for any starting pitcher. It might not be possible to get an extension done without five years. In 2015, eight pitchers signed 5-year deals or longer* . Since then, just two starting pitchers have signed 5-year deals or longer: Yu Darvish and Patrick Corbin. I’m not sure a five-year deal is necessary, though again it’s kind of a hard sell before he can even look at free agency.

*It’s not a great list. Zack Greinke, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, and Ian Kennedy. Greinke is worth the deal, Price and Leake are TBD, and the rest are... not even close.

Unlike in the case of Goldschmidt, I actually want Mikolas to sign an extension. Signing Mikolas would in no way hurt the Cardinals ability to sign another starter or even trade for another starter if they wanted to. Signing Goldschmidt prevents a Bogaerts, an Arenado, a Rendon for sure. The Cardinals have two certainties in 2020 right now at starting pitcher. Signing Mikolas gives them three. Plenty of room for another additional starter if they wanted.

As such, you can’t really give him a bargain. The deal he signed suggests he wants to test free agency. You need to convince him not to. Also unlike Goldschmidt, I could fairly easily see Mikolas’ deal becoming a bargain after another good season, whereas I don’t really see a Goldschmidt season improving his projections that much. So I’m starting the 2020 season at 2.7 WAR, despite his projection also being 2.7 WAR in 2019.

Over the next four years (half a win decline every year), that would land him at 7.8 WAR over the course of the deal for $70.2 million with the price of a win being $9 million. Once again, I am giving him a 2019 raise to lower the next four years - there still needs to be a reason for the Cardinals to sign the deal now instead of in free agency after all. So I give Mikolas a $10 million bonus for 2019 and sign him to a 4 year, $60 million extension.

Because I don’t think that would get it done, let’s sweeten the pot with little additional risk to the Cardinals. First off, offer a $2 million bonus if he wins the Cy Young, $1 million bonus if he finishes in the top 5, and $500K bonus if he finishes in the top 10. If he throws 170+ innings, he gets a $500K bonus and if he finishes with 200 or more innings in a season, he gets a $2 million bonus. Though the Cy Young and Cy Young votes are not likely, he could make an additional $10 million from innings bonuses.

I’m not done. I said I wouldn’t give him a fifth year, but more accurately I won’t give him a guaranteed fifth year. Add on a club option for a fifth year for $15 million. But since club options only benefit the team, let’s give him a chance to make that guaranteed. If Mikolas finishes in the top 10 in Cy Young voting in either 2022 or 2023, it becomes guaranteed. If he throws 300+ innings in the last two years combined, it is also guaranteed. On top of that, if he does neither and the Cardinals reject the club option, it’s a $5 million buyout.

So in total, it’s a $4 year, $60 million deal with a $15 million club option with $75 million guaranteed including the $10 million bonus and $5 buyout at the end of four years. Realistically, he could make up to $10 million more if the option is vested or picked up, another $10 million from innings bonuses, and somewhere in between $14 million and whatever you think is realistic with his Cy Young votes, cause he is not winning four straight Cy Youngs. But if he did, he would probably pitch 200+ innings every time and make a grand total of $109 million over the next five seasons.

Look at it this way. If he pitches 200 innings in a season, it seems like he’d be worth at least 2 WAR and getting paid $17.5 million for it. If he gains any additional money from Cy Young voting, I feel comfortable assuming he will be worth more than the $20 million he will get from every bonus. Where a Mikolas deal would go wrong, I’m assuming, is injuries and if he pitches less than 170 innings, he gets paid $15 million, which is manageable and the Cardinals certainly have the payroll.

So... what do you think? Did I go overboard on this one? Or do you think I should have made it less complicated and given him more money and/or years?