FORT MYERS, Fla.—Andrew Miller is in this position because he chose to be. In that, the 25-year-old is unique.
Few players would walk away from a major league contract in favor of a minor league deal. Few would place less importance on the composition of a team’s major league roster (and potential big league openings) than on the opportunity to develop.
But for Miller, the 6-foot-7 tower of limbs who flashes a high-90s fastball and a slider that seemed lethal to overmatched college opponents, the goal was different than most.
He was a dominant, can’t-miss amateur who was in the majors within weeks of signing. Yet the race from college to the big leagues may have occurred too quickly, with his major league career falling short of projections.
This offseason represented a chance for Miller to try to correct course, for the pitcher once touted as the second coming of Randy Johnson to at least restore direction toward those unfulfilled prophecies.
The Red Sox acquired Miller in a trade with the Marlins, non-tendered him weeks later and then signed him to a minor league deal. For his part, Miller was looking not at short-term interests but instead at his career arc.
“I’m at the point where I want to figure out what’s best for me,” Miller said. “And I want to see what I can do to make a long career out of this and fulfill what I think is my potential.”
For that, Miller had to make an unusual choice. But then, it was not the first time that he came to a crossroads. Many believe Miller represents a case study in too much too soon. But the path could have been even shorter.
Miller emerged as a top prospect in the 2003 draft at Buchholz High in Gainesville, Fla. There were suggestions that the Devil Rays might take the in-state phenom with the top overall pick.However, elite status had its drawbacks. Scouts started questioning whether his across-the-body delivery could allow him to hold up. Similarly, they voiced concerns about his lanky frame. Miller, who had a commitment to North Carolina and placed a high value on the college experience, was not amused.
“Being a little stubborn, I was like, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong.’ So I threw out a real high number—’If you want to draft me, I’ll sign, but this is what it’s going to take,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t really realistic.”
The Rays turned instead to Delmon Young. Miller thought the Mariners might take him with their sandwich round pick, but they instead took Adam Jones.
“I’d say they made a good move,” Miller mused of a player who has become an All-Star center fielder for the Orioles. “He’s turned out alright.”
Tampa Bay did call before its second-round selection, but when they proposed a figure, Miller said he wasn’t interested.
“At that point,” Miller recalled, “I’m thinking best-case scenario, I fall to the 43rd round, get drafted by Boston, New York, something like that, and they go, ‘We’ve got enough money.’ Then maybe something happens.”
Instead, the Rays plucked him with their third-round pick. After negotiating little over the summer, the Rays offered Miller a seven-figure bonus and a major league contract, but he proceeded with his plan to go to college.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “Me being an erratic, 185-pound, 6-foot-6 high school kid, I don’t know how that would have worked out. I don’t think it was right for me or right for them. I’d like to think that at 18 years old I could have showed up and worked my way up through minor league baseball. I’d like to think of myself as able to do that, but being a little honest with myself, I needed that college strike zone for a couple of years.”
He then smiled.
“I could still use it.”
A Steady Climb
Miller was not an overnight sensation in college. That status instead fell to classmate Daniel Bard, whose effortlessly powerful fastball made him the Friday starter for the Tar Heels almost immediately.
But as the season progressed, so did Miller. He ended the year with a 2.93 ERA in 18 games, with 88 strikeouts and 48 walks in 89 innings. But it was during the summer following his freshman year where his career took off. Miller went to the Cape Cod League and was overpowering against many of top college talents. In one game he recorded 12 outs—all by strikeout. Baseball America named him the top prospect in the league.
Miller oozed confidence as he solidified his place as one of the top pitchers in the country. His mechanics still weren’t considered picture perfect, but UNC was not about to tinker with success. “We don’t try to make every kid throw the same,” Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. “We try to find an arm angle that works for them.”
Apparently, they were successful. Miller went 8-4, 2.98 as a sophomore, with 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He went back to the Cape, going 6-0, 1.65 with 66 strikeouts in 49 innings, and became a marked man when he returned for his junior year, but the spotlight did not affect him. He went 13-2, 2.48, overpowering just about everyone. He had a game against No. 1 Florida State where he pitched seven innings, struck out nine and allowed one ball to be hit in the air. He struck out at least 10 batters in five starts and helped UNC reach the College World Series championship.
“It was awesome. It was so much fun to watch,” Bard said. “When he was on, it was so unhittable to college hitters. He could throw the slider and get people to swing over the top of that. He could throw 96 by you.
“I always thought his stuff was so unhittable that he would never struggle. You just saw an invincibility once he started to figure it out. I figured this guy was only going to get better.”
Bard wasn’t alone in that assessment. The long-limbed lefty with the high-90s heat and the sick breaking ball was compared by many scouts to Randy Johnson.
Miller was flattered but uncomfortable with such suggestions. Even so, that he was earning comparisons to a five-time Cy Young winner made clear that Miller was about as talented as anyone in that year’s draft class, and that he was going to be in position to seek a big payday.
Miller had bypassed a major league deal while coming out of high school. That wasn’t going to happen again.
“I put up a lot of risk going to college,” Miller said. “I wanted to maximize what I’d done to this point.”
The lefthander made no secret of his demands. Miller did not mind the prospect of slipping in the draft. Indeed, part of him even hoped that he might remain on the board to where the Yankees (who had the No. 21 pick) and Red Sox (Nos. 27 and 28) were picking, ready to scoop up players with tremendous talent but asking prices that chased away teams that were content to toe the MLB slot line.
“I was falling and can I fall to the team I want to take me? As soon as the Royals say we’re not taking you, every slot after that is not what I’m shooting for,” Miller said. “To be honest with you, we thought we had taken out a lot of teams. Going into draft day, I was hoping to fall to where Boston and New York picked because we had talked to some teams and (thought) those are our best teams to work with.”
Pro teams felt the same way. The Tigers—another team not shy about paying for draft talent—grabbed him with the No. 6 overall pick in 2006 and signed him to a four-year, $5.4 million major league deal.
That Miller received a big league offer was viewed as a no-brainer. His college career had been so outrageously good that there seemed little question he would be an established rotation member long before it was an issue.
“That’s an opportunity you don’t turn down,” Miller said. “It was certainly enough money at that point that I was making out pretty good from the way the system works. I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues pretty soon.”
He pitched just three games in the high Class A Florida State League, then moved up to the majors, where the Tigers were enjoying a surprise postseason run that would take them to the World Series.
Miller debuted in Yankee Stadium on Aug. 30 and recorded the final out against of an 11-4 win over the Royals on Sept. 24, a victory that punched Detroit’s first ticket to the postseason since 1987. It was an extraordinary moment, in what most believed would be the first of many in the lefthander’s career.
Had the Mets advanced past the Cardinals to play in the World Series, Miller would have been on the Tigers’ roster. Instead, with St. Louis (a team whose only lefthanded hitter of note was Jim Edmonds) lined up against Detroit, Miller was on the Tigers’ bench but not on their roster for the Fall Classic.
“I’ll never trade those experiences for anything,” Miller said. “How many people have gotten to experience that? For me, it was the best experience you can imagine.”
In 2007, Miller appeared ready to keep up the blistering pace. He spent a month and a half in the minors and in his first big league start tossed six shutout innings against the Cardinals. He carried a sub-4.00 ERA through 10 starts but injured his hamstring (leading to a DL trip) and struggled in August, culminating in a start on Aug. 29 when he recorded just two outs while allowing five runs.
That was enough. The Tigers pulled him from the rotation and asked him to work on his mechanics with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. That may have marked a moment when his path changed.
“In pro ball, once I started to have some hiccups and showed some glaring holes, everyone—in my best interests—was trying to get me to work on mechanics,” Miller said. “I think I made some significant strides straightening out my delivery, this and that, but I think it took away a little bit from being athletic out there and attacking.
“It became more of a thought process of, mechanically, where do I need to be? Shoot, I never used to think about that. I’d grab the ball and get the hitter out.”
The Tigers traded him that winter to the Marlins as a key to the deal to land masher Miguel Cabrera. For Miller, a new organization meant new pitching coaches and, of course, new advice on mechanics.
There were moments when he seemed to be on the way, notably a two-month run in the Marlins rotation in 2008 when he had a 3.42 ERA over 12 starts. But he was injured in July (patella tendinitis) and spent the last month getting tagged out of the bullpen.
The following seasons featured more fits and starts, more inconsistency, more injuries, more command lapses. The talent was at times apparent, but never in a sustained and meaningful way.
By the time the 2010 season had ended—an 8.54 ERA with as many walks (26) as strikeouts (28) and 51 hits in just 33 innings. His 2.357 WHIP was the eighth-highest since 1901, among pitchers who threw at least 30 innings.
Thus arrived what could be a pivotal moment in Miller’s career.
A Last Chance
The Marlins were prepared to non-tender the lefthander, part with him for nothing. And so, when the Sox offered Florida Dustin Richardson—a lefthanded reliever with his own command issues—they were willing to part with the fallen prospect.
The move did not come to a surprise to Miller. After all, the Sox had talked to Bard about his college teammate before making the trade; Bard, in turn, jumped on the phone with his friend to mention the possibility that the two could be reunited.
The Sox used those weeks to introduce themselves to Miller, but then non-tendered him. They wanted to keep the lefthander and help him develop to put his career back on track, but the likelihood of doing so was diminished if they kept him on the major league roster.
Because Miller has now exhausted his options, a team cannot send him from the majors to the minors without exposing him to waivers. The Sox didn’t feel that keeping Miller on the big league roster just for fear of losing him was productive, either for the team or for the pitcher’s development. So they allowed him to become a free agent, with the idea of signing him to a minor league deal.
Agent Mark Rodgers said at least three or four were open to giving Miller a big league contract, and there were opportunities to compete for rotation spots. Those were not Miller’s priorities this time around.
“What we didn’t want to do was create an artificial deadline on his improvement,” Rodgers said. “.
“People might go, ‘Wow, why did you turn down a major league deal?’ In this case, I think it’s constructive to not focus necessarily on the label of a major league or minor league deal and instead to focus on what the goal is here. The goal is to get Andrew back to the major leagues, and once he’s there, to keep him at the level he needs to be at to be a consistent, successful performer.”
To that end, Miller and Rodgers went together to the Winter Meetings in Orlando to talk with about six clubs, including the Red Sox, Rangers and Giants.
“Sometimes you view a player through a caricature as opposed to what he really is. I thought it was important for clubs to meet Andrew,” Rodgers said. “They needed to understand that he was humbled by what happened to him over the last couple of years, that he was not content, that he had not accomplished anything other than making a lot of money.”
Teams gave Miller a sense of how they viewed him as a pitcher, their thoughts on his performance and mechanics as well as his potential, and their development approach for him. After several years of deflating big league performances, Miller heard reassurance from respected talent evaluators about what remained possible. So long as he was willing to follow through, he was told, he had a chance to reclaim his status.
For that, Miller was willing to take a step back and do the necessary work in the minors. He was willing to leave the question of his best role in a team’s hands, and commit to the player development that his major league deal had truncated.
“When I was 22 years old, I was like, ‘Forget development, get me out of here. I want to pitch in the big leagues,'” Miller said. “Hey, we all take different paths. This is where I’m at . . . There’s no what-ifs about me throwing 500 innings in the minor leagues before I got to the big leagues. Shoot, I’ll never trade those experiences for anything.
“(But) being out of options, at this point in my career, look, I’ve experienced some pretty cool stuff. I’ve been in that situation where you need to make the team where they’re rushing you for different reasons. It just seemed to me like Boston’s the place that wanted me the most. They have the best resources. They were the right fit for me. They’re the right fit for a lot of people. That’s why everyone comes here.”
The Sox offer no rotation openings, and a bullpen that is deep enough that Miller is one of more than a dozen arms vying for one or two spots. Miller’s deal calls for him to make $1.3 million salary if he’s in the big leagues. But according to a source familiar with the terms, it also includes a club option that vests should Miller be assigned to another club. So if the Sox add him to the big league roster and then send him back to the minors (which would expose him to waivers), other teams would be unlikely to claim him unless they were committed to him long-term.
“As excited as I was when I got traded here when I got the opportunity, I think I’m more excited now because of the way that my contract is structured. I don’t have to make the team right now,” he said. “Look, I’m no dummy. I can look at the roster. I’d love to be pitching in Boston in April because I’ve pitched my butt off in spring training, I deserve it and I’m ready.
“But I just want to be in the right place, to work with the right people and fulfill what I think is my potential.”
Miller is open to whatever the Sox decide, whether Triple-A or the majors, starting or relief. The title of pitcher is more important than the role.
“It would be a dream to figure it out and 10 years from now I’m laughing and starting 33 games every year,” he said. “But if I’m relieving in 70 or 80 every year, having a good time, being successful, hey, I’m not going to complain.”
The reality is that there are far more pitchers in baseball history who have never recovered from early-career struggles. But there are enough outliers to offer the lefthander hope. At the most extreme, Randy Johnson, the pitcher to whom Miller was compared in college, was wild and ineffective through his age 25 season before commencing one of the great runs in baseball history. Cliff Lee, now arguably the best command pitcher in the game, endured high walk rates through his age 25 campaign. Bard recovered from a minor league season in which he walked more than a batter an inning to become a dominant set-up man. White Sox power lefty Matt Thornton improved his command in his late 20s to become one of the most dominant lefthanded relievers in the AL over the last three years.
Maybe Miller will find his way to similar success. Perhaps he won’t. But either way, he will know that he tried to do what was best for his career.
“I really believed he was at the crossroads of his career,” Rodgers said. “At some point, I think we’ll look back on this offseason and put a dot on the map that he was at the crossroads of his professional baseball career, and I want him to know that he had his fingerprint on where we put that dot on the map. And I think that’s what we accomplished.”