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 out of college. 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 towards the as-yet unfulfilled prophecies of what he might accomplish.
The Red Sox acquired Miller in a trade with the Marlins, non-tendered him just weeks later and then signed him to a minor-league deal. During the process, Miller was driven not by short-term interests but instead an eye towards his career arc.
“I’m at the point where I want to figure out what’s best for me,” said Miller. “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 faced an unusual crossroads.
THE FAST TRACK NOT CHOSEN
Many believe that Miller’s development represents a case study in too much too soon. But the path that he has actually taken is nothing compared to the one that he could have traveled.
Miller emerged as a top prospect in the 2003 draft when he became one of the most heralded prep pitchers in the country while at Buchholz High School in Gainesville. He was named Florida’s high school Gatorade Player of the Year, and there were suggestions that the Devil Rays might take the in-state phenom with the top overall pick in the draft.
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 noted. “I wasn’t really realistic.”
The Rays turned instead to Delmon Young. Other teams called to ask if he would accept the slot recommended bonus in the first two rounds; Miller said that he would not, and suggested that they would not want to waste a draft pick on him. He believed that 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 their second round selection, but when they proposed a figure to Miller, he said that he wouldn’t be interested.
“At that point,” recalled Miller, “I’m thinking best-case scenario, I fall to the 43rd round, get drafted by Boston, New York, something like that, and they would go, ‘We’ve got enough money.’ Then maybe something happens.”
Instead, the Rays plucked him with their third-round pick. But they didn’t negotiate with him at all that summer, and so the 18-year-old prepared to start college.
His car was packed for UNC the night that the Rays called. The proposal was exceedingly rare.
The Rays offered Miller a seven-figure bonus and a major league contract, something that is almost never offered to a high school pitcher. Had he accepted, it would have meant that he would have exhausted his minor league options – thus requiring the team to keep him in the big leagues for good or risk losing him on waivers – by 2007.
Yet despite the opportunity, and even though enrolling at UNC could mean a more deliberate path to the majors, Miller 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.
“It was kind of a weird deal. 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,” he continued. “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 DOMINANT PRESENCE
Miller was not an overnight sensation in college. That status instead fell to classmate Daniel Bard, whose effortlessly powerful fastball made him the Friday night 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 (15 starts), 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 League and was overpowering against many of top college talents. In one game (called after four innings due to fog), he recorded 12 outs…all by strikeout. Baseball America named him the top prospect in the summer league.
It wasn’t labored. 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 by telling him not to throw across his body.
"We don't try to make every kid throw the same," said Tar Heels coach Mike Fox. "We try to find an arm angle that works for them."
Apparently, they were successful. Miller went 8-4 with a 2.98 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings (most in the ACC) as a sophomore. He went back to the Cape, which resulted in a 6-0 record, 1.65 ERA and 66 punchouts in 49 innings.
His career had made him a marked man when he returned for his junior year, but the spotlight did not affect him. He went 13-2 with a 2.48 ERA, 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 game.
“It was awesome. It was so much fun to watch,” said Bard. “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.
He 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,” said Miller. “I wanted to maximize what I’d done to this point.”
The left-hander made no secret of his demands. Teams picking near the top of the draft would ask whether he would sign for MLB’s slot recommendations for a top-five pick. Aside from the Royals, who held the No. 1 overall pick, Miller told those teams that he wouldn’t accept such a deal.
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,” said Miller. “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.”
It didn’t happen that way. The Tigers – another team that is not shy about paying for talent – grabbed him with the No. 6 overall pick. They signed Miller to a four-year, $5.4 million deal that included a $3.55 million bonus and a provision that guaranteed him a call-up in Sept.
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 that he would be an established rotation member long before his four options had been used up.
“That’s an opportunity you don’t turn down,” said Miller. “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.”
The deal presented Miller with tremendous opportunities. He pitched just three games in the Florida State League, then was 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 was the pitcher who 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 left-hander’s career.
Had the Mets advanced past the Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS to play in the World Series, Miller would have been on the Tigers’ roster. Instead, with St. Louis (a team whose only left-handed 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.
Still, it was a remarkable and dizzying run.
“I’ll never trade those experiences for anything,” said Miller. “How many people have gotten to experience that? For me, it was the best experience you can imagine.”
THE MECHANICS OF THE FALL
The following year, Miller appeared ready to keep up with the whoosh of his career path. He spent a month and a half in the minors and then, in his first big league start, tossed six shutout innings against the Cardinals.
There were moments of brilliance, including a career-high seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball against the Red Sox in July. He carried a sub-4.00 ERA in 10 starts through the end of that month.
But he injured his hamstring (leading to a DL trip) and struggled in Aug., culminating in a start on Aug. 29 when he recorded just two outs while allowing five runs and getting pulled in the first.
That was enough. The Tigers pulled him from the rotation and asked him to work on his mechanics with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez over the last month of the year. That, in turn, may have marked a moment when his developmental 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,” said Miller. “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 where he seemed to be on the runway, most notably, a two-month run in the Marlins rotation in 2008 when he had a 3.42 ERA over a 12-start stretch. But that was a false start rather than a smooth takeoff. He was injured in July that year (patella tendinitis) and then spent the last month of that year getting tagged in the Florida 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 that aligned with Miller’s amateur hype.
By the time the 2010 season had ended – a year in which Miller had an 8.54 ERA while issuing nearly as many walks (26) as strikeouts (28) and allowing a stunning 51 hits in just 32 2/3 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 DECISION TO STEP BACK
The Marlins were prepared to non-tender the left-hander, part with him for nothing. And so, when the Sox offered Florida Dustin Richardson – a left-handed 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. Miller told Bard that he’d heard the same thing.
The Sox used those weeks to introduce themselves to Miller, but then non-tendered him. The idea was that they wanted to keep the left-hander 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 (those 25 roster spots are, after all, precious) or for the pitcher’s development.
And so, the Sox allowed him to become a free agent, with the idea that they wanted to sign the left-hander to a minor league deal that was based primarily on his long-term development.
But first, Miller wanted to explore what other possibilities existed. About 20 teams expressed interest in the free agent. At least three or four, said agent Mark Rodgers, were open to giving the left-hander a big league contract. There were opportunities to compete for spots in big league rotations.
Those were not the pitcher’s priorities. Indeed, he made clear that he was entirely open to a minor league deal so that the fact that he was out of options would not hinder his opportunity to enjoy an extended stretch focusing on his development while minimizing disruptions.
“He’s out of options. If we had done a major league contract, the clock immediately starts ticking on both Andrew and the club,” said Rodgers. “What we didn’t want to do was create an artificial deadline on his improvement.
“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.”
Towards that end, the pitcher and his agent took an interesting approach to their conversations with teams. Rather than have an agent talk to teams about dollars and cents, and rather than having an impersonal phone conversation between team officials and the pitcher, Miller accompanied Rodgers to the winter meetings in Orlando to talk with about six clubs.
He sat down in the Sox’ suite and talked to team officials and coaches. He talked with members of the Rangers brass, including team president Nolan Ryan. And he had a conversation with Giants VP of player personnel Dick Tidrow, a man who receives a great deal of credit for helping to assemble and develop San Francisco’s homegrown pitching staff that won the World Series.
“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,” said Rodgers. “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 strategy for him.
There was also a side benefit. Over the course of such meetings, after several years of deflating big league performance, Miller had the opportunity to gain reassurance from respected talent evaluators about what remained possible. So long as he was willing to follow through with the commitment and work that he was showing in the meetings, he was told, he had a chance to reclaim his prospect 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 – starting or relieving – in a team’s hands, and commit to the player development that his major league deal out of college 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,’” said Miller. “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 offered 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.
His choice was not guided by a team’s immediate needs. The decision to sign with Boston – the team that he twice hoped might draft him – was driven by what Miller viewed as his best chance of developing, and the organization’s evident interest in forging a partnership in his future, something that became evident in his contract.
Miller’s minor league deal calls for him to make a $1.3 million salary if he’s in the big leagues. But it also includes some unusual features that are meant to protect against Miller going to another organization.
“I believe there are some unique protections built into the contract to protect both Andrew Miller and the Red Sox,” said Rodgers. “If he’s making progress, I don’t want an intervening circumstance that we have no control over to prevent him from improving.”
For instance, according to a source familiar with the terms, the two sides agreed to add a club option that vests should Miller be assigned to another club. That, in turn, ensures that if the Sox were to add him to the big league roster and then send him back to the minors (something that would require exposure to waivers), other teams would be unlikely to claim him unless they were committed to his long-term development.
Such clauses were important to the pitcher.
“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 my contract is unique. … It just seemed like the right fit. It seemed like the right place to be. 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 is in store for him, whether that means Triple-A or the majors, starting or relief. (When he was at UNC, some scouting directors thought that his fastball/slider combo was more likely to lead him to closing than starting.) 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.”
Whether Miller is able to realize that vision remains to be seen. The reality is that there are far more pitchers in baseball history who have never recovered from the sort of early-career struggles that he has endured than those who have.
But there are outliers who offer the left-hander hope, who managed to correct course at a similar age and juncture.
At the most extreme, Randy Johnson, the pitcher to whom Miller was compared in college, was wild and ineffectual 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.
His former teammate, Bard, recovered from a minor league season in which he walked more than a batter an inning to become a dominant setup man. White Sox power lefty Matt Thornton improved his command in his late-20s to become one of the most dominant left-handed 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, this offseason, he made an unusual choice that was driven solely by a desire to do what was best for his career.
“I really believed he was at the crossroads of his career,” said Rodgers. “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.”