It’s been over a month now since the Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas out of Japan. He projects, at the moment, to be the fifth starter in the rotation behind Martinez, Wacha, Weaver, and Wainwright. It is relevant to consider his contract as a glimpse into how the front office currently views its roster, specifically its prospects.
Also about a month ago, Tyler Kinzy discussed the irony of signing Miles Mikolas. Sure, the Cardinals saved money by trading away Mike Leake, but then spent money to acquire Mikolas. What is most important here is not the amount of money saved, but the length of the contracts themselves. Leake was signed through 2021 with a $5 million buyout after the 2020 season. Mikolas, in turn, is under contract for only two years, through the 2019 season.
Although that difference is potentially only one year, it is significant. Before dissecting that, why don’t we go back in time to when the Cardinals traded Mike Leake.
The day was August 30th. The Cardinals were 66-66 and six games behind the Cubs for the division lead; five and a half games out of the wild card. Luke Weaver had settled into his role as a starter, going 3-0 and striking out 28 in his three August starts. The rotation at the time was Martinez, Wacha, Leake, Lynn, and Weaver, with Wainwright out due to an injury.
Of course, Wainwright would eventually return in 2017. If he hadn’t, he certainly would be ready for the 2018 season. Simply put, Weaver’s performance made Leake expendable and he was traded. On September first, Jack Flaherty made his Major League debut, pitching four innings, striking out six, and giving up five runs. It wasn't an impressive start and, quite frankly, the remainder of his season didn’t turn a lot of heads either. Still, what the Cardinals saw was a young, raw prospect with tremendous potential.
At this point, the 2018 rotation appeared to set up as Martinez, Wacha, Weaver, and Wainwright. The Cardinals planned to let Lynn go in free agency and Alex Reyes would begin his 2018 in the bullpen. Flaherty, while he may have showed glimpses, was not ready to have a spot in the rotation.
It makes sense, then, that the Cardinals needed a fifth starter, so they went out and acquired Mikolas in December. He is not just a simple replacement for Leake. His contract is both an insurance policy on Adam Wainwright and an indication of the confidence the front office has in Jack Flaherty.
With the Mikolas signing, the Cardinals rotation is set for 2018 and probably for 2019 as well. In 2020, there are a few more options.
Possible Starters 2018-2020
After this season, the Cardinals have a decision to make about resigning Adam Wainwright. It is a choice the team has, in all certainty, not made yet and depends very much on his performance in the upcoming year. After the 2019 season, Michael Wacha will become a free agent, no longer eligible for arbitration. Again, giving the team not only a decision to make, but flexibility.
The team will likely be in a position where they do not need to resign Adam Wainwright to fill a starter’s role. And by the time Mikolas’s contract expires, in 2019, Flaherty should be ready to step into the rotation, at least, the management of these contracts seems to suggest the front office is planning for it.
And while planning for the future is a good thing, the team has not sacrificed any flexibility in the present or the near future. If Wainwright returns to form, however unlikely this might be, the Cardinals can resign him. If Mikolas puts together two great seasons, the team can resign him as well. There are two sides to this coin, however. If the two veterans don’t perform well, the Cardinals are not in a position where they need to pay more than the market price to retain them due to the emergence of Weaver and Flaherty.
Describing the acquisition of Mikolas after trading away Leake as a “head scratcher” is probably unfair—both teams benefitted. That said, the implications of the two different contracts become evident with a closer examination. Essentially, Mikolas is a player with more upside than Leake, who buys the right amount of time at a better price for Flaherty to develop.