Alert, alert: One of the Japanese Central League's best pitchers of the past three seasons signed in the United States on Tuesday!
OK, OK, Shohei Ohtani, the most bandied-about name headed to the U.S. for the 2018 season, wasn't the guy. No, instead, it was Miles Mikolas, a three-year major leaguer from 2012-14 who returns after a three-year stint with the Yomiuri Giants, for whom he won 31 of 62 starts with a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed the former San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers pitcher to a two-year, $15.5-million contract, adding to what was an already stout stable of starting pitchers. Considering the team's needs in terms of power -- you might've heard them tied to trade rumors for some guy named Giancarlo Stanton -- as well as relief-pitching help, it's a wise, depth-building move on their part that could help with future deals.
It also lands Mikolas in one of the places most likely to move the fantasy baseball needle. In addition to landing in pitching-friendly Busch Stadium, he also joins a team with a strong reputation for developing quality pitching; since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Cardinals rank third in team ERA (3.62), eighth in WHIP (1.28) and seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.6:1).
With Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha locks to make the Cardinals' Opening Day rotation, Adam Wainwright almost assuredly also in unless he's persuaded to shift back to the bullpen, and Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty also strong candidates for spots, Mikolas might have to battle for a guaranteed role as things currently stand. Still, it's conceivable that either Wainwright or Reyes, or both, could shift to relief to clear a space.
From a team perspective, Mikolas' arrival is probably the worst news for Reyes since, in his first season back following Tommy John surgery in February, he might be most wisely used in a swingman/multi-inning-relief role in 2018 in order to keep his innings total in check. For now, we'll await other potential moves.
Assuming Mikolas does make the starting five -- the odds are greater that he will than won't -- he could provide back-of-a-mixed-staff value for a dirt-cheap price. Colby Lewis will almost assuredly be the first comparable example that comes to mind in fantasy terms for such a U.S.-to-Japan-and-back-again success story, as the right-hander posted a 3.93 ERA -- more than two-and-a-half runs lower than during his first stint in the States -- in 80 starts in his first three seasons for the Texas Rangers, after a successful two-year run in Japan. Others that come to mind include Darrell May, who had a handful of useful starts for the 2003 Kansas City Royals, and Tony Barnette, who had a solid year as a setup man for the 2016 Rangers.
While specifics on Mikolas' pitch usage in Japan aren't available, scouts hint that his fastball remains in the same 92-93 mph range it was in during his one year as a big-league starter with the 2014 Rangers, but he also has a quality curveball, slider and cutter. He had just introduced the slider during that 2014 season, so it's possible that his three years in Japan have helped him gain some polish to it. The 4.1 percent walk rate he had during those three seasons combined hint to that, and they are a lot closer to his rates during his minor-league time in the Padres' system.
Expect Mikolas' strikeout rate to dip back in the States, though as a member of the National League he'll benefit in that department from facing pitchers rather than designated hitters. Still, he'll only warrant draft consideration in the "streaming" valuation tiers, among the top 75 starting pitchers in the best-case and around 100 or as an add-and-drop starter otherwise. Considering how little we know about his recent adjustments, however, he'll be a key pitcher to track during spring training.
After all, it's often the unknowns who provide us the most bang for the buck.