Cards' Miller Paying His Dues With River Bandits
SPRINGFIELD, MO.—When the Cardinals assigned top prospect Shelby Miller to the Midwest League—instead of speed-rushing the 19-year-old righthander on to, say, Double-A—they explained that a gradual, educational experience was a proper path.
Maybe they didn't envision Miller's rite of passage exactly this way, but consider a rainy Friday night in late April.
As Miller sat in the dugout and awaited a night of charting pitches, Quad Cities manager Johnny Rodriguez strolled over, took a seat close by and started talking pitching.
"I asked him, 'Do you understand what it means to impose your will on another player?,' " Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez then pointed to some of the game's greats such as Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, and he immediately had Miller's attention, partly because the righthander idolized Ryan and Clemens, a pair of fellow Texans. The manager then explained how they could throw any pitch in any count because they had the confidence to do it.
"I said, 'You can impose your will on every hitter you face. They may have a good bat but they have no idea what you're going to throw,' " Rodriguez said. "He looked at me and said, 'I haven't thought of it that way.' "
Miller's growth certainly will be an enjoyable storyline this summer as the 2009 first-round pick—the 19th overall selection and one of the best arms in last year's high school prospect crop—fires his way through his first full pro season.
Fortunately for the Cardinals and his manager, Miller acknowledges that he doesn't have all the answers even though his résumé (he signed for $2.875 million) and early season results suggested he may need only a couple of years in the minors.
Through his first 24 innings, Miller struck out 41 and issued just nine walks.
However, he was 0-2, 5.32 after six starts, a stretch in which he yielded 28 hits and 18 runs, 14 earned.
In spring training, Miller set a goal to reach Double-A Springfield, but recognized that he had to pay his dues first.
"My goal this year is to climb the ladder as fast as I can and see how far I can get, and get as close as I can to the big leagues," Miller said. "I got a lot of advice in big league camp, from Chris Carpenter to Brendan Ryan—do the right things on and off the field, keep the ball down in the zone, don't get ahead of yourself."
He then added, "It's just the journey you have to take. You have to work your way up."
A National League scout who evaluated Miller in April came away impressed.
Miller uses his 6-foot-3 height to create downward plane and his 205 pounds to generate velocity on a fastball that roamed between 90 and 97 mph and averaged 94.
His curveball was 76-78 mph, though Miller lacked consistent arm speed on his changeup, a pitch the scout suspects contributed to Miller's 28 hits in 24 innings. Nevertheless, he left quite an impression.
"What impressed me the most was his fastball and the way he attacked with it," the scout said. "Command of it at this point is just a tick below-average. I graded it at 40 present but a 60 future. That's very, very high for a kid."
The scout went on.
"One of the benefits of the Midwest League or any low-level league is it's still about projection," the scout added. "You're talking about 19- to 21-year-olds, and they would still be in junior college or were in last year's draft. You can still project and dream about them.
"When you show stuff like Shelby did when I saw him . . . as a 19-year-old with that kind of body, two plus pitches—he is a fast-track guy."
It might have been all too enticing to ship Miller straight on to Double-A this year.
After all, Miller dominated on the back fields of the Cardinals' Jupiter, Fla., spring training complex, where he cranked up his four-seamer into the mid-90s.
But the Cardinals said no, that Double-A would have to wait. In Quad Cities, he could learn how to become a professional pitcher, as well as be paired with catcher Robert Stock and righthander Joe Kelly, the organization's 2009 second- and third-round picks, respectively.
"I wouldn't rule out (Double-A) by the end of the year. For sure, next year," pitching coordinator Dyar Miller said.
Ron Warner, who manages the Cardinals' Double-A team, concurred.
"In Double-A, especially (the Texas League), it has some older players, and (hitters) know what they're doing," Warner said. "It's a tough level, and you better be ready when you get there—and not just physically but mentally. You better have your head on straight."
The Cardinals shouldn't worry about Miller running off the rails, off the field that is.
Even though he was a gifted Texas high school athlete, starring in both football and baseball at tradition-rich Brownwood High, Miller insists he will stay on an even keel in the minors. In fact, he said he expects to avoid the occasional influences that could hamstring any young adult, let alone a highly regarded prospect.
"Becoming a professional athlete is something I can adapt to pretty quick," Miller said. "If you don't have the right mindset to do the right things on the field and off the field—doing drugs, drinking alcohol, getting in trouble with the law—then you are just never going to make it."
He went on.
"Seniors in high school all do the drinking and the partying. But that's something I stayed away from in high school," Miller said. "I knew the situation I was in, as far as getting drafted. My parents preached not getting in trouble, and I knew I had so much to lose.
"You get so much thrown at you here (in pro ball). Some of these guys go out to bars, but I'm the one sitting back in the room because I'm the young kid," Miller added. "You've got to do the right things, and that's what I'm trying to do, to stay away from all of that so I don't get in trouble."
Kary Booher covers baseball for the Springfield News-Leader