Miles Mikolas, other international pitchers could be Milwaukee Brewers’ ticket to success

Miles Mikolas, Hyeon-Jong Yang and Hideaki Wakui are all potential international pitching options for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.

The Milwaukee Brewers are officially out of the race for Shohei Ohtani, but that doesn’t mean general manager David Stearns will be any less willing to test the international market.

While the likes of Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn remain contract-heavy outside options the Brewers can most certainly afford stateside, Stearns has proven that big moves don’t always necessitate big names or big contracts. Even with his limited experience in Milwaukee, the young GM has already cemented his identity as an exceptionally-discerning deal maker, as evidenced by key additions like breakout third baseman Travis Shaw.

But Stearns’ greatest strength resonates far beyond his frugality. In truth, his taste for the unconventional may be the key to the team’s recent success and fans need to look no further than first base. Adding former MLB prospect and KBO phenom Eric Thames was about as under-the-radar as it gets, and bolstering the position by claiming Jesus Aguilar off waivers in February meant he was able to add a combined 47 home runs and 115 RBI — along with several years of security — to the stat sheet, all for an average of only $6 million a year.

With hot stove already in motion and the Winter Meetings less than a week away, there will be plenty of opportunities for Stearns to again prove his front office prowess. While Major League Baseball’s roster of free agents is already drawing speculation far and wide, it could again be unorthodox methodology that makes or breaks the Brewers’ playoff hopes in 2018.

One name that has surfaced that seems right in line with that type of thinking is Miles Mikolas, who, like Thames, was given limited MLB playing time before greatly improving his game overseas, as noted by Ken Rosenthal.

Mikolas’ first foray in the majors was met with middling results at best, as he compiled a 4-6 record, 5.32 ERA and 1.423 WHIP with wholly-average strikeout and walk rates (6.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9) over 37 games split between three seasons. But since joining the Yomiuri Giants in 2015, he’s vastly improved in nearly every statistical category. Over the last three years, he’s compiled a record of 31-13, posted a 2.18 ERA and 0.994 WHIP, all while trimming his walk rate to an impressive 1.5 BB/9 and buoyed his strikeout rate to 8.0 K/9. In 2017, he even pushed those rates to 1.1 and 9.0 respectively.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a comprehensive arsenal either, and Mikolas suits the need with a fastball that has topped out at 94-mph, a curve with exceptional movement, a hard slider and a change-up to boot. Given the fluidity that Stearns and manager Craig Counsell regularly employ, he would also make a good fit for a mid-season move to the bullpen should another starting option become available outside of Jimmy Nelson’s return from injury.

Contract estimates have ranged between $7 and $10 million for a two-year deal, potentially making him an absolute steal given what he’s been able to produce. But like any international free agent, success at the MLB level is a long road to proof. The 29-year-old will be facing much different hitters than he was in Japan and given the precarious nature of even tenured pitchers, it’s still a risk, even if small. Luckily for Milwaukee, if they do decide to make Mikolas a competitive offer, it will likely have little impact on the incredibly low payroll still on the books, even after arbitration, as the team has hovered at the bottom of league-wide spending for the last two years.

But Mikolas isn’t the only international pitcher Milwaukee could open their checkbook to. Hyeon-Jong Yang, a left-handed pitcher out of South Korea could also be a potential fit. Like Thames, who was also signed out of the Korean league, Yang’s end-of-year status was held in high regard — he was named the KBO MVP in 2017.

Outside of being an additional left-handed arm the Brewers’ rotation could undoubtedly utilize, his numbers over the last three years (3.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/9) prove that he could be serviceable in the back end of the rotation.

In the past, Yang had expressed his interest in playing in the majors and was previously posted by the Kia Tigers in 2014, but the offers the team received were quickly rejected for being too low. As recently as mid-November, a few MLB teams have already completed status checks on the 29-year-old but nothing has come to fruition in any official capacity and Yang has also stated publicly that he would like to return to the Tigers in 2018, leaving his status cloudy at best — not to mention the team would again need to post him before talks begin. But then again, with the MVP notch on his belt, his potential value may have already reached its ceiling and could be the impetus to his entering the MLB pool.

Another option could be right-hander Hideaki Wakui. Despite having only a modest 2017 season (5-11, 3.99 ERA, 1.323 WHIP) in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball at 31 years old, the tenured pitcher has maintained an incredibly consistent 13-year career, compiling a 3.45 ERA and 1.259 WHIP while posting solid walk and strikeout rates (2.7 BB/9, 6.6 K/9). Wakui’s contract expired at the end of the 2017 season and he’s previously expressed an interest in joining the MLB ranks. Given his age, he easily meets international requirements in both age and experience to surpass being restricted to international bonus pools, leaving a vast amount of financial room for the Brewers, or any team for that matter, to make him a considerable offer.

While Mikolas may be the greatest potential asset of the three, there’s little doubt that Stearns will be looking to explore every potential option available to secure a competitive roster for 2018 and beyond. Based on his previous history, almost nothing seems out of reach.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.