The route to a game at Roger Dean Stadium was a lot shorter when Miles Mikolas was a kid growing up in nearby Tequesta, Fla., but after a detour through Japan, he has found his way back to that ballpark.
As momentum starts to build for a winter that they hope will reshape their roster, the Cardinals signed Mikolas to a two-year contract Tuesday that will guarantee the righthanded starter $15.5 million. A native of the Jupiter, Fla., area who came to Cardinals spring training games as a boy, Mikolas, 29, returns to the majors for the first time since 2014 and after three resounding seasons in Japan’s top league. He went 14-8 this past season for Yomiuri with a 2.25 ERA and eight strikeouts for every walk.
“Our scouts have watched him as he refined his repertoire, improved his velocity and became one of the most effective pitchers in Japan the last couple (of) seasons,” wrote general manager Michael Girsch in an email.
Mikolas received overtures from several teams and was at least once identified as a target of the Cubs this winter. Among the reasons he chose the Cardinals was a chance to remain close to home for spring training and a family connection to St. Louis: His aunt was a principal at Incarnate Word Academy. Mikolas’ salary in the second year could climb if he meets innings pitched incentives in 2018, and the Cardinals see him as a contender for a starting spot.
He is also preparation.
The Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants continue to await word on Giancarlo Stanton’s decision and whether he would waive his no-trade rights from Miami to accept either of his most aggressive suitors. Both teams met with Stanton and his representatives last week in Los Angeles, and the Cardinals left the West Coast unsure if Stanton preferred it as a destination or could be swayed to the Midwest by the team the Cardinals have in mind for 2018 and beyond.
The Cardinals have made a compelling offer to Miami, according to sources, and in addition to taking on more of the $295 million remaining on Stanton’s contract they have been willing to trade the better package of players, including an elite pitching prospect such as Sandy Alcantara or Jack Flaherty. Both have been discussed by Marlins.
Cardinals Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong used social media Tuesday to lobby Stanton on behalf of the team. On Instagram, Wong referred to himself as “The Pebble” and Fowler suggested on Twitter that Stanton “#comeflexwithdex.”
Throughout this offseason, the Cardinals have worked parallel conversations, including some trade talks that would be an alternative to landing Stanton, the 2017 NL MVP.
The Cardinals have viewed any conversation with Miami about Stanton as one that could frame negotiations for outfielders Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna, two other prominent hitters the Marlins may move to slash payroll. The Cardinals have also had discussions with Tampa Bay about its closer, Alex Colome, and a source confirmed those talks could shift or expand to include third baseman Evan Longoria. The Rays are also reportedly looking to trim payroll, and the Gold Glove winner is due $86 million through 2022, $94 million if an option is exercised for 2023.
Less than two weeks into the coming season Longoria, 32, would achieve “10/5” no-trade rights after 10 years of service time, including the past five with one team. If the Rays wish to move him without the bind the Marlins are in with Stanton’s no-trade clause, now is the time.
The Cardinals have gauged the interest in their young pitchers and arbitration-eligible starter Michael Wacha, because such deals could require a starting pitcher.
The Cardinals added to their depth with Mikolas.
The righthander, whose name is pronounced MY-koh-las, was the Padres’ seventh-round pick in 2009, and he advanced in the minors as a reliever before, in 2014, he made 10 starts for Texas. That season he went 2-5 with a 6.44 ERA in 57 1/3 innings. He received his release in November 2014 and signed a one-year deal with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants. In 2015, he went 13-3 with a 1.92 ERA in 145 innings, and that earned him a two-year extension. He threw 188 innings this past season and never walked more than 23 batters in a single year in Japan.
“Command of all my pitches. A lot more comfortable throwing breaking balls down in the count, throwing breaking balls inside, outside, front door, back door, moving the fastball around better,” Mikolas listed Tuesday during a conference call with St. Louis media. “Getting a better feel for what it’s like going through a lineup two, three, four times, which was that difference between when I was a reliever (and now a starter). Coming out of the bullpen you’re just kind of a gunslinger. Here it is. It’s a little more of a chess match as a starter — something I really got a grasp on.”
The Cardinals had scouts Jeff Ishii and Rick Meinhold as well as director of player personnel Matt Slater visit Japan and collect scouting reports on Mikolas. The use video extensively, too, when it comes to scouting players. What they saw and what they read was desired durability, a hold on his mid-90s-mph velocity late into games, and strikes.
Lots of strikes.
“We feel he is a player who benefited from the opportunity to pitch and be challenged at a high level in Japan,” Slater said. “Miles was able to pitch in front of a sold out 40,000-seat stadium every night in the Tokyo Dome and getting that experience helped him grow his command.”
Although he has less than 100 innings in the majors, he left enough of an impression to carry a nickname, “Lizard King.” As a member of the Padres organization and in a Padres uniform, Mikolas ate a live lizard as his teammates watched. Video of the snack went viral.
Born in Jupiter, Mikolas returned there with his family when he was in third grade, and he attended Jupiter Middle School and Jupiter High School, both of which are short bike rides from the Cardinals’ spring training complex.
“I’m about as local as they get,” Mikolas said.
He’s even moved closer to the ballpark and lives there with his wife and their baby daughter. After three years of traveling 7,385 miles from home to take the mound in the Tokyo Dome, Mikolas has cut his commute down to, oh, 5 minutes for spring.
“Everything should be earned,” Mikolas said, when asked about his role. “Hopefully I can show up in spring training and hit the ground running, and be everything they want me to be when they signed me.”