Is the Cardinals’ gamble on Miles Mikolas worth it?

Whenever a Major League team signs a player to a big-money contract, it’s a lot like going to the window at the race track…or at the least making a big bet on a game with a buddy.  Many deals work out.  When looking at the Cardinals signing their own players, they signed Matt Holliday to his seven-year contract, and it worked out very well for them.  Since they signed Matt Carpenter to his long-term deal during spring training in 2014, he’s finished 12th in MVP voting in 2015 and 9th last year.  He’s been an All Star in two other years, so his contract has been a good one.  Steven Piscotty signed a long-term deal after 2016, and he spent 2017 distracted by his mother’s fatal ALS diagnosis.  He was really good for Oakland last year, so while that deal won’t work out for the Cardinals it has a chance to be a very good contract.

On the flip side, Allen Craig signed his new deal in spring training of 2013, then got hurt down the stretch and again in the World Series.  He was never the same and the Cardinals traded him to Boston in 2014, never having to pay him the big money on that deal.  Craig never really performed well for Boston, but made $26.5 million in 2015-2017 and got a $1 million buyout after 2017.  The Cardinals didn’t get much out of Jaime Garcia’s four-year, $27 million deal that took him from 2012 through 2015.  He averaged just over 87 innings a year during the four seasons, and never approached the 194 2/3 innings he delivered in 2011.  The Kolten Wong deal hasn’t been a bust, but hasn’t been great.  It looked like the Carlos Martinez deal would be great, but that one is up in the air now.  Paul DeJong signed just last year, so the jury is out on his long-term deal.

That brings us to the four-year, $68 million deal the Cardinals gave Miles Mikolas on Tuesday.  Mikolas was eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, so naturally he was going to get a larger sum than players that are four or five years away from free agency.  In the big picture, I say this signing has a better chance to come down on the side of Holliday or Carpenter’s deals than Craig’s or Garcia’s.

The Cardinals evaluated Mikolas as an impact pitcher coming back from Japan last season, giving him a two-year, $15.5 million deal.  He delivered in a big way, going 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA in 200 innings.  In 32 starts, Mikolas went at least 6 2/3 innings in fifteen of them.  He threw a first pitch strike to 468 of 808 hitters.  Those hitters hit .214 after falling behind Mikolas 0-1, with a .245 OBP and a .320 OPS.  That .565 OPS is typical of what happens after hitters fall behind 0-1, and he’s as proficient as anyone in getting first pitch strikes.

So, we know he gets ahead of hitters.  And he didn’t wear down as the season went along.  Mikolas’ best season was May, when he was 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA.  His second-best month was September, in which the 6-5, 220 pounder went 5-0 with a 2.14 and a season best .219 batting average against.  In his biggest games of the year, Mikolas was at his best.  In five September starts, he went 6 2/3 innings, then seven, five, seven and eight innings.  In those 33 2/3 innings, he walked…two.  TWO walks in five September starts.

Mikolas also displayed the personality of stalwart Cardinal starters over the last two decades.  From Pat Hentgen in 2000, to Daryl Kile, Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the Cards have had a starter that’s kind of a ring leader for the rotation.  They talk baseball all the time, they watch each other’s bullpen sessions, they make suggestions to their mates, and the help the young pitchers that arrive through the system.  Mikolas fits right in with that philosophy.

Ultimately, the Cardinals kept a pitcher that was headed toward free agency.  He’s a guy that the Cardinals evaluated as a valuable piece when he was pitching in Japan.  Then he went out and delivered for them, on and off the field.

From his standpoint, Mikolas sees what free agency has been like for a pitcher like Jake Arietta last year or Dallas Keuchel this year.  And then there’s the fact that Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole and Rick Porcello are going to be free agents next off-season.  For the high priced pitchers, it’s going to be a buyer’s market.  Was he going to be able to get more than $17 million a year?

And from the Cardinals standpoint, they look at some of the highest paid pitchers in the game.  Zack Greinke gets $34.4 million a year from the Diamondbacks.  David Price’s tag is $31 million a year, as is Clayton Kershaw’s.  Max Scherzer is at $30 million. Is it fair to expect Mikolas to be half as good as those guys?  I think it is.  Pitchers that have similar contracts and average annual values right now include Nathan Eovaldi, Anibal Sanchez and Rich Hill.  Is it reasonable to think Mikolas can be as good…and as durable…as those pitchers?  Again, I say yes.

It’s a gamble…no doubt.  But with what we know about the Cardinals evaluation of pitchers, what he did in his first year with the club, and what the market for pitchers is, I think signing Mikolas is a gamble worth taking.