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Stints in Asia produce gems for MLB teams

Mikolas, Thames, Barnette among players who revived careers overseas
MLB.com @DougMillerMLB

Eric Thames found a way to just be his slugging self. Tony Barnette found his niche as a late-inning reliever. Colby Lewis found leadership and a plan. Miles Mikolas found rhythm and durability as a starter. Mikolas' wife even found a burgeoning career as a television star.

The list of baseball players who reignited their careers in Asia and came back to the Major Leagues continues to grow, and more and more teams are heading east to find diamonds in the rough.

Eric Thames found a way to just be his slugging self. Tony Barnette found his niche as a late-inning reliever. Colby Lewis found leadership and a plan. Miles Mikolas found rhythm and durability as a starter. Mikolas' wife even found a burgeoning career as a television star.

The list of baseball players who reignited their careers in Asia and came back to the Major Leagues continues to grow, and more and more teams are heading east to find diamonds in the rough.

A bit more than a quarter-century after Cecil Fielder returned from Japan and began blasting balls out of Major League stadiums at astounding rates, Mikolas is the latest to attempt a triumphant return, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed him to a two-year contract worth a reported $15.5 million, are big believers in his talent.

It was a slightly off-kilter path for Mikolas, a 29-year-old right-hander who had found himself in a bit of a pickle toward the end of 2014, when he was with the Texas Rangers and embarked on a career change that year as a starter after relieving since high school.

"The Rangers had a lot of guys coming back in 2015 off injury," Mikolas said. "I wanted to keep starting, but I knew it would probably be in the Minor Leagues, and then I could end up back in the bullpen. I really didn't know where I was headed."

Then he got an offer to start for the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball in Tokyo. He and his wife, Lauren, arrived in a city where the ballpark was packed and Mikolas got a full season of work to focus on refining his delivery, smoothing out his repertoire and building a foundation of innings. He thrived right away, going 13-3 with a 1.92 ERA. An injury-plagued 2016 slowed his momentum, but he rebounded with a brilliant 2017, winning 14 games, pitching to a 2.25 ERA and striking out 187 batters in 188 innings.

Video: Miles Mikolas talks his success in Japan

By the end of the season, Lauren's popular lifestyle blog, called Fearless Charm, had taken off and she was gaining fame around Japan as a TV commercial star. As for Miles, the scouts were flocking to see him, so it was only a matter of time before he could come back to the States and a lucrative opportunity, hopefully for good.

"My initial thought was if I go there for one year and don't do well, I could come back to the U.S. on a Minor League deal and be more or less where I was before, with a bit more of a financial cushion," Mikolas said. "At the same time, it's easy to kind of drift into obscurity, especially when you're not a big-name guy."

The Cardinals are betting that he has the chance to become that big-name guy, much in the way the Rangers scored with Lewis and Barnette and hope to do so again in 2018 with their most recent signee out of NPB, Chris Martin, who had come to a personal crossroads in MLB until signing with Nippon-Ham in NPB and sparkling in two seasons of relief before signing with Texas this winter.

Rangers mine talent in Japan

Lewis had been drafted by the Rangers in 1999 but didn't stick in Texas or the Major Leagues until he went to Japan in 2008-09 and shined for the Hiroshima Carp, improving dramatically in the one area that plagued him in his early big league career, strike-throwing, and maturing on the field and off. The Rangers snapped him up for two years and $5 million in a heartbeat, although the move was viewed by other industry experts as a bit strange.

"I'm not sure anyone else was willing to guarantee a second year for him," Rangers assistant general manager of professional scouting, research and development and Pacific Rim operations Josh Boyd said. "In retrospect, knowing Colby the way we know him now, who's safer? Who's lower risk than him? He'd gone there for two years, competed, pumped strikes, and the evolution of Colby in Japan is as remarkable as probably anybody. He became this warrior, team leader and veteran presence for us."

Video: TEX@OAK: Lewis loses no-hitter in the 9th inning

That wasn't all. Lewis became their best postseason pitcher in runs to American League pennants in 2010 and 2011. Now he's a special assistant to Rangers GM Jon Daniels. And his success paved the way for the Rangers to nab Barnette and now Martin.

Barnette was selected by the D-backs in the 10th round of the 2006 Draft after starring at Arizona State. He was in the D-backs' system for more than three years but went unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft after a 14-win season for Triple-A Reno in 2009. That's when the Tokyo Yakult Swallows called and a six-year Japanese journey began.

Barnette found success once he switched to the bullpen in 2011, led NPB's Central League in saves in 2012 and 2015, and never looked back ... until the big leagues -- the Rangers, specifically -- wanted him back. He signed in 2016 at the age of 32 and became an indispensable middle-relief option in Texas.

"I spent a lot of time with headphones on," Barnette said of his time overseas. "You spend a lot of time by yourself with self-coaching, with no friends and nobody to talk to. It's one of those things you learn to deal with. You have a lot of time by yourself to reflect on your thoughts."

'Fresh start' a boon for Thames

That's how Thames approached his three years in Asia, although his were spent in South Korea. After parts of three seasons in the Majors and plenty of games in the Minors, the slugging prospect had only hit 21 total big league home runs and was thinking his constant bouncing up and down was going to end sooner or later. The Asian offer came out of the blue.

"My goal was to play one year over there, come back and get a fresh start," Thames said.

After slashing .343/.422/.688 with 37 homers and 121 RBIs in his first season with the NC Dinos, he got a few calls about Minor League deals back in the U.S., but he resisted.

"I didn't want to go back and be a bench guy," Thames said. "I don't care who you are -- you don't want to platoon. If you're facing big leaguers, you need the everyday at-bats to succeed. It's almost impossible to do well if you're coming off the bench."

So Thames stayed and he kept hitting. He slashed .381/.497/.790 with 47 homers and 140 RBIs in Korea in 2015, then .321/.427/.679 with 40 homers and 121 RBIs in 2016. It wasn't terribly surprising, then, that Milwaukee snapped him up for three years and more than $15 million, although it was a bit surprising, maybe, that he hit 11 homers and drove in 19 runs in the first month of the season en route to a 31-homer season in which he put up an OPS of .877.

Video: PIT@MIL: Thames crushes two-run shot for 30th homer

Now teams will try to find the next Thames, the next Mikolas, or the next Lewis or Fielder. They'll know where to look, too.

"One of the thoughts I've always had is that ballplayers always get caught up in logistics and what's going to happen, but if you control your performance and how you act and don't get caught up in all that other stuff, it's a lot easier," Thames said.

"I think for a lot of the guys, playing in Asia is a fresh start. If you're buried in an organization, you finally get a legit chance. For a lot of guys, it's new scenery, a new team, a new country. There's no more pressure."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.

Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony Barnette, Colby Lewis, Miles Mikolas, Eric Thames