He’s not Peter Parker’s replacement. Nor is he an extra from Stranger Things, though the 80’s stache and the fact that he’s spent a while in the upside-down do make that a possibility. No, Miles Mikolas is actually a member of the current free agent class, a buy-low starting pitcher who’s making his return to MLB after three years in Japan.
Listed at No. 54 in Jon Heyman’s list of the top 80 available players, Mikolas is projected to earn a two year contract in the $8 million range. That’s highly affordable under any circumstances, but would be a perfect fit for a team that might be looking to add the top pitcher not named Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish while also holding onto their star closer.
In case I’m not being clear enough, I’m talking about the Cubs. We’ve discussed other low-cost options like Tyler Chatwood and Jhoulys Chacin, but Patrick Mooney slipped Mikolas’s name into a piece about the Cubs’ likely pursuit of Alex Cobb. Jesse Rogers likewise singled out Mikolas in his look at the moves the Cubs need to make to compete in 2018.
That could be coincidental professional overlap, or it could be that the former Padre, Ranger, and (Yomiyuri) Giant has been discussed by someone in the organization. It’s entirely possible the Cubs are legitimately interested in Mikolas, but why? After all, there are plenty of options out there with similar risk profiles that don’t include several years abroad.
Then again, the last three seasons have given Mikolas an opportunity to work almost exclusively as a starter, something he never did in his American career. A seventh round pick by the Padres in 2009, the 6-foot-5 righty made it to San Diego in 2012 and registered 32 innings as a rookie. He made only two big league appearances totaling 1.2 innings the following season and was traded to Texas prior to 2015.
Mikolas posted a 6.44 ERA in 10 starts with the Rangers, but his 4.77 FIP indicates that he wasn’t pitching as poorly as the first number made it seem. Remember, he was transitioning to a starting role, and his 102 innings pitched between AAA and MLB were easily a career high. He twice exceeded that mark in Japan, though 424.2 innings over three seasons is still a low total. And with just under 872 innings across nine professional seasons, we’re looking at a guy with far less mileage than a typical 29-year-old.
More than that, Mikolas appears to have figured things out during his time in NPB. It’s hard to say exactly what changed, since pitch data isn’t as readily available as it it for MLB pitchers. When he was with the Rangers, he utilized a four-seam/sinker/slider/curve/change combo and had pretty average velocity. Did he find a couple extra ticks? Improve his sequencing? I’m really not sure.
What is evident is that his stats were vastly improved. An aggregate 0.994 WHIP and 5.48 K/BB ratio were highlighted by a 2017 season in which he struck out one batter per inning and walked only 23 men in 188 innings. Theo Epstein was talking about the bullpen when he discussed a need for strike-throwers, but the ability to avoid walks is key for starters as well.
Having a guy at the back of the rotation who can give you an average of 6.96 innings per start is a nice luxury, particularly when he does so for only $4 million AAV. It’s important to note that performance in Japan doesn’t correlate directly to MLB, but good is good. There’s a precedent for such a return, too. In his piece on salary estimates, Heyman likened Mikolas to Colby Lewis, who had a two-year run of his own in Japan.
Though his career numbers are the picture of mediocrity, Lewis was much better from 2010 on and even exceeded 200 innings in each of his first two post-NPB seasons. That’s really all the Cubs need, a guy who can take the bump every five days and give them good innings. And if Mikolas can maintain even close to the level of performance he’s displayed during his time in Japan, he could end up being a huge steal.
Given all the pitchers on the market, it’s entirely likely that the big expat ends up somewhere other than Chicago in 2018. Mikolas is an interesting name to monitor, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him mentioned a few more times this winter.