While Shohei Otani rightly draws the majority of headlines when it comes to international free agents potentially making the jump to Major League Baseball, there’s another interesting righty that could try to transition from Nippon Professional Baseball star to MLB starter. Right-hander Miles Mikolas is now a free agent after wrapping up a successful three-year stint with the Yomiuri Giants, and MLBTR has learned that he is interested in making his way back to the big leagues.
Mikolas’s name probably rings a bell with Padres and Rangers fans, but it’s been a while since he has factored into the discussion on this side of the Pacific. After failing to find his footing in parts of three seasons in the majors, Mikolas has spent the past three campaigns as one of the best starters in Japan.
Over 91 1/3 MLB innings from 2012-14, Mikolas managed only a 5.32 ERA with pedestrian peripheral marks: 6.1 K/9 against 3.4 BB/9 along with a middle-of-the-road 44 percent ground-ball rate as a big leaguer. He’d shown impeccable control early in his pro career, but his walk rates spiked as he reached the upper levels of the game.
Mikolas began reversing that trend in 2014 — the same year he attempted to work from the rotation for the first time. While he struggled through 10 MLB starts, he also worked to a 3.22 ERA with 7.7 K/9 against just 0.6 BB/9 in his 44 2/3 Triple-A frames that year.
That performance caught some attention overseas, as Yomiuri purchased the rights to Mikolas from the Rangers in the 2014-15 offseason. The move allowed the Texas organization to clear some space on its 40-man roster and gave the righty a chance to earn more money while functioning as a starter overseas.
Mikolas impressed enough in his first campaign in Japan that the Giants re-signed him to a fairly notable two-year, $5MM contract. While that agreement looks modest by MLB standards, it’s a relatively sizable commitment overseas and certainly a life-changing figure for a pitcher who hadn’t established himself in the majors as he headed into his age-26 season.
Now 29 years of age (30 next August), Mikolas has posted video-game numbers over the life of his three-year tenure in Japan. He carries a 2.18 ERA through 424 1/3 innings with Yomiuri, and he really put things together in a 2017 season in which he spun 188 frames of 2.25 ERA ball over 27 starts. He not only struck out a batter per inning but also dropped his walk rate to 1.1 BB/9.
It isn’t entirely clear at this point just what kind of offers Mikolas might receive, but he should generate interest and could well command a 40-man roster spot. We’ve seen guaranteed money go to other pitchers who rejuvenated their careers in Japan. Colby Lewis, for instance, signed for $5MM over two years back in 2010. More recently, reliever Tony Barnette took home a $3.5MM promise over two seasons. Both of those pitchers landed with the Rangers, who along with the Padres are not only prior employers of Mikolas, but also figure to be among the numerous teams that will be looking to add rotation candidates this winter.
Mikolas will not be the only former big leaguer on the radar for a possible return. Reliever Chris Martin has also thrived in Japan, allowing just 11 earned runs on 46 hits over 88 1/3 innings across the past two seasons while carrying a 91-to-13 K/BB ratio. That translates to a 1.08 ERA in his two seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, and the fact that he’s been a teammate of Otani for two years means that big league scouts have had plenty of chances to determine whether the former Yankees/Rockies reliever can plausibly sustain some of that success in the Majors in what would be his age-32 season. Martin has just a 6.19 ERA in 36 1/3 MLB innings, but he had a solid 3.48 ERA with 9.2 K/9 against 2.5 BB/9 in 106 Triple-A innings before landing in NPB.
Beyond that duo, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has already reported that the Cardinals have interest in Orix Buffaloes closer Yoshihisa Hirano, who is also a free agent this year and can explore MLB opportunities without needing to go through NPB’s posting system. Even beyond Otani — whose pursuit has the potential to surpass the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes in attention and drama — it’ll be an interesting winter to watch trans-Pacific player movement.