There were few surprises among the list of participants in the Red Sox’ Rookie Development Program.
There was Casey Kelly, the first-rounder who is considered the top pitching prospect in the system. Jose Iglesias, the former member of the Cuban junior national team who signed with the Sox for $8.25 million, shared center stage.
Junichi Tazawa and Che-Hsuan Lin, among the most prominent amateurs to come out of Japan and Taiwan, also participated. So, too, did Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick, the outfielders who have been considered among the top prospects in the system for the past few years.
The group was comprised primarily of the highest-profile players in the Sox’ minor league system. For most of the 12 participants, the notion that a big league future lies just a season or two away came as anything but unexpected.
Yet for at least one program participant, inclusion in such a category seemed almost unfathomable. After all, just four years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Ryne Miller in professional baseball, let alone with a vision of a major league pitching future. Even Miller found it difficult to believe that he was in Boston as a prelude to a possible big league future.
“I don’t think highly of myself. I feel like I’m the low guy on the totem pole,” Miller said. “There are a lot of good players in this organization.”
Yet Miller, improbably, has quietly made a case that he is one of them.
FROM TWO-SPORT ATHLETE TO NO-SPORT ATHLETE
Miller had quit baseball in 2003, after his junior year of high school, to focus on a football career. It would be hard to consider the choice shocking.
Miller, after all, had grown up in Odessa, Texas, and started his prep career (before his family moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area during his junior year) at Permian High School. He was very much a part of the culture of the city and school that offered the subject of Buzz Bissinger’s "Friday Night Lights."
The lure of football seemed all but irresistible. And so, after receiving a scholarship offer to play quarterback at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Miller walked away from the diamond.
But college football didn’t go exactly as planned. Miller enrolled at Louisiana-Monroe, but the team wanted to move him from quarterback to tight end during spring practices of his freshman year.
Miller ended up leaving school and going home. What awaited him was uninspiring.
“I spent a year out of school, didn’t do anything. I just worked,” Miller said. “I was a porter in an apartment complex, cleaning the grounds, cleaning the pool. In July in Texas, it’s about 100 degrees. I looked up at the sun and said, ‘I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life.’ ”
Miller told his father that he wanted to go back to school, and his dad agreed to bankroll the decision. He enrolled at Texas' Weatherford College in 2006.
Roughly three years after he’d last played baseball, he walked onto the baseball team before earning a scholarship for the spring semester. The team asked him to throw sidearm, and he ended up working as Weatherford’s closer.
In the summer of 2007, he pitched in the Texas Collegiate League. There, he returned to pitching over the top in an effort to generate more velocity.
“We had a kid who was throwing 96, 97. The scouts would always come and watch him. I’d come in after him, and they’d pack up their stuff and leave. So, I’m like, ‘Well, nobody knows who I am,’ ” Miller said. “I went back over the top, and I don’t know how it happened, but it just came easy.”
The right-hander pitched well, earning a spot on the TCL All-Star team for a contest attended by scouts from virtually every major league team. In that game, Miller opened eyes. He had never exceeded 91 mph, but that day he touched 96 while striking out both of the batters he faced.
Evaluators noticed, including Red Sox area scout Jim Robinson. He called the Sox front office and said that there was a big right-hander with good stuff who had gone undrafted but was eligible to sign. Other Red Sox evaluators were able to catch Miller’s performance on video. The next day, the team signed the undrafted free agent to a $47,500 bonus.
Miller had a respectable debut, logging a 2.08 ERA as a 21-year-old in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and for the Lowell Spinners. He flashed a solid fastball and showed a good feel for his curveball.
In 2008, however, he performed poorly in his first full professional season. He encountered early season arm injuries, and when he returned, he had a 5.68 ERA in 29 games while walking 23 batters in 50-2/3 innings.
He struggled to repeat his delivery and command the strike zone, largely because he had ballooned to the point where he looked like a tight end.
“We liked the arm,” Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. “With the physical setbacks initially, it was kind of hard to see it.”
The 6-foot-4 Miller acknowledges that he had increased to 260 pounds, and it wasn’t good weight. That offseason, Miller decided that he needed to commit to his craft.
“I just concentrated everything on baseball,” Miller said. “I wasn’t serious about baseball at all. I said, ‘If you want to make this your career, you’ve got to dedicate.’ ”
BECOMING A PITCHER, AND A PROSPECT
Miller hired a personal trainer, and by spring training in 2009 he was down to 215 pounds. When he showed up in spring training a year ago, the Sox were floored. Miller looked the part of a pitcher, and he felt like a pitcher.
His stuff was instantly better. Rather than being a grunt-and-groan pitcher who had to labor to generate velocity and thus lost the strike zone, Miller became a more natural pitcher.
“You feel more comfortable with yourself. You don’t feel a big belly around you,” he said. “It’s easier for your mechanics. A fluid motion is much easier.”
The decrease in weight, many observed, was directly related to an increased ability to repeat his delivery. Improved command and overall performance on the mound followed.
“Last year at this time, he was just another guy going to camp,” roving pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel said. “He came out of nowhere because of his body. The way he took to the conditioning, the throwing program — he just became dedicated.
“He really caught my eye when he walked into spring training last year in just phenomenal shape. I said, ‘This guy has taken ownership of his career and wants to become a major league pitcher.’”
With his performance, Miller moved toward that goal. He started 2009 in high-A Salem, going 8-2 with a 2.77 ERA, striking out 59 and walking 18 in 55-1/3 innings. He was named MVP of the Carolina-California League All-Star Game when he punched out five of the six batters he faced.
Then he was promoted to Portland, where Miller had a 2.28 ERA in 11 relief appearances. Based on his effectiveness and his three-pitch arsenal (low-90s fastball, potentially plus curveball that he commands well, work-in-progress changeup), Treuel recommended that the Sox give him a season-ending trial in the rotation.
“At 250 [pounds], he’s not a starter. At 225, we feel like he’ll be more durable and healthy. … Ralph wanted to start him. We’d seen what he’d done as a bullpen guy. He’d had success in multiple innings. We also think this guy has three pitches,” Hazen said. “We’ve always started all of our best arms. [Treuel] said: ‘I think this guy can start.’ And he did.”
In his first two outings for Portland, Miller struck out 15 in 10-2/3 innings, allowed just four hits and didn’t allow a single earned run. Despite a rough line in Miller's third start, the Sox saw enough to convince them to invite the 24-year-old to their Rookie Development Program.
Miller took well to the conversion. For that, he suggested that Mike Cather, his pitching coach last year in Portland, offered a piece of crucial advice.
“At first, I just paced myself. But Mike Cather told me to go out there just like I was relieving: Close out every inning. That’s what I did,” Miller said. “I treated every inning like it was my last. Close it out, close it out. Before you know it, I’m in the fifth inning.”
The Sox will continue to develop Miller as a starter in Double A to open 2010. In that capacity, he will have a greater opportunity to get a better feel for his changeup and to learn to control the running game.
Longer term, he may well end up back in the bullpen. But the fact that there might be an avenue for him to reach the majors, whether as a starter or reliever, has gone from improbable to realistic in the course of a few years.
The fact that the Sox had him in Boston for the Rookie Development Program served as a reminder of that notion. Miller has developed into a fringe prospect for the Sox, with a decent shot at a big league future.
For Miller, the unlikely development — just a few years removed from a time when he was cleaning the grounds of an apartment complex — remained hard to fathom.
“This is what every kid, when they’re young, they dream about,” Miller said. “I dreamed about it when I was young, and I’m living my dream.”
Glimpse of the Future: Jose Iglesias
Glimpse of the Future: Che-Hsuan Lin
Glimpse of the Future: Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick
Glimpse of the Future: Casey Kelly