It is a siren that has ruined the career of many a promising prospect.
A team drafts a young pitcher and instantly proclaims that his stuff has brought him to the cusp of big-league stardom. His time in the minor leagues is little more than a lillipad that serves as a springboard to a big league destination.
The scouting reports rave about electrifying velocity, incredible breaking stuff and unusual poise and maturity. Days or months into his professional career, the pitcher reaches the majors…and then, for the first time, is confronted with failure, sometimes for the first time in his life.
And so, a once-promising future gets derailed – sometimes for years, sometimes forever. The misses by can’t-miss prospects are always retold with regret for how things were handled, and what could have been.
Prior to this year’s draft, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein reflected on the phenomenon when discussing a pair of pitchers whom, in retrospect, he feels the organization rushed to the majors: Cla Meredith, a 2004 sixth-round pick who gave up a grand slam in his big league debut less than a year later, and Craig Hansen, a 2005 first-rounder who was in the majors weeks after signing his contract with the Sox, and never fulfilled any of the considerable promise he’d shown as an amateur.
“The longer you’re in it, the more you learn that there are no shortcuts,” Epstein said in discussing that pair. “If you get a guy to the big leagues quick, great, but you’re probably going to pay on the other end, and you’re probably not going to get as long or sustained a career. The player’s not going to reach his true, ultimate ceiling that maybe he would have reached with a broader, more complete development period in the minor leagues.”
Those words would certainly seem to apply to Andrew Miller, the lanky lefty who made his Red Sox debut on Monday night. The former No. 6 overall pick reached the majors after just three minor league appearances in the same year in which he was drafted. He then struggled to find consistent mechanics or success in four subsequent years with the Tigers and Marlins.
Now with his third organization but still just 26 years old, the pitcher who was once touted as the second coming of Randy Johnson offered an impressive first big league glimpse to his new club on Monday.
He made one noteworthy mistake, leaving a fastball over the plate that Orlando Hudson belted for a three-run homer in the sixth inning. Aside from that, however, he was impressive, touching 96 mph on the radar gun and commanding three pitches (fastball, slider, changeup) in racking up six strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
Though Miller received a no-decision, he and the Sox were more than satisfied with the first impression.
“Velocity was good. Changeup was really good. He’s always had a feel for a breaking ball. There’s a lot to be encouraged about,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “We’ve got a guy that’s got a tremendous arm, likes to compete. Hopefully he’ll be a real big help for us.”
That said, in order to achieve that status, Miller would have to buck the odds of baseball history. He is on a short list of pitchers who made their big league debuts in the same season in which they were drafted.
In the last 15 years, there have been seven pitchers who reached the majors in the same season in which they were drafted in the first round. The history of such hurlers is, simply put, ugly:
Ryan Wagner, RHP, 2003 (1st round – No. 14), Reds
Wagner posted ridiculous strikeout numbers as a college closer for the University of Houston, and so the Reds selected him with the intention of putting him almost immediately in the back of their bullpen. He struck out 10 and walked two in nine minor league appearances in 2003, then posted a 1.66 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning for the Reds down the stretch.
But the closer of the future never saved a single big league game. His strikeout numbers dipped, his hit rate soared, he was traded, injured (torn shoulder labrum) and ultimately ineffective in a big league career that spanned 148 games and featured a 4.79 ERA. He retired in 2009.
Chad Cordero, RHP, 2003 (1st round – No. 20), Expos
A star at Cal State-Fullerton, Cordero needed just 19 minor league games (at the Hi-A level) to earn a big league summons in the same summer in which he was drafted. He actually represents one of the most successful players to get on the fast track. Before getting hurt in 2008, he spent the better part of four seasons as the closer for the Expos and Nationals, averaging more than 30 saves with a 2.79 ERA from 2004-07.
But he suffered a torn labrum that required surgery in 2008, never got healthy and on Monday night – after trying to pitch for the independent St. Paul Saints – he retired.
Craig Hansen, RHP, 2005 (1st round – No. 26), Red Sox
The Sox often speak with regret about the way they handled college closers Meredith and Hansen.
Hansen entered the 2005 draft as a closer who was given some consideration for one of the top handful of draft spots. Signability questions dropped him to the Sox, who signed him to a big league deal and had the right-hander with a power fastball and slider in the majors by September.
But his career in the majors never panned out. He went 4-9 with a 6.34 ERA, and struggled every time he was demoted. He was traded by the Sox to the Pirates as part of the three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers and brought Jason Bay to the Sox, and Hansen proved singularly ineffectual (when not dealing with injuries) in Pittsburgh. He was released in spring training this year.
“In Meredith’s case, he just happened to be quick because of how much success he had and some of the problems we had in the big leagues. And that was definitely a mistake. With Hanson’s development, I think he was rushed,” Epstein noted this month. “I’d list both those guys as failed development in a certain way. We made mistakes that we learned from as an organization.”
Joey Devine, RHP, 2005 (1st round – No. 27), Braves
Taken one pick after Hansen in the 2005 draft, Devine made 23 minor league relief appearances at three levels, emerging with a 2.77 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 16 walks in 26 innings.
Before he ever threw a pitch in the majors, Braves manager Bobby Cox said he would have a chance to close. Then, in his major league debut, Devine gave up a 13th-inning grand slam and took the loss. In his next outing, he permitted a three-run homer. It would be four weeks before Devine pitched in another big league game.
The Braves tried to have him open the following year in the majors. In two appearances, he gave up seven runs while recording just three outs. Devine was sent back to the minors until September. Atlanta charted a more conservative course in 2007, and Devine had a 1.08 ERA in 10 appearances.
The Braves traded him to the A’s after that season, where Devine enjoyed a tremendous 2008 campaign (0.59 ERA in 42 games). However, the right-hander required Tommy John surgery after the season, and missed all of the last two years. He’s pitching well for Oakland this year, with a 2.45 ERA in 15 games.
Andrew Miller, LHP, 2006 (1st round – No. 6), Tigers
Miller was viewed as the best college arm in the 2006 draft, a pitcher whose high-90s fastball, wipeout slider and tall frame inspired visions of a second coming of Randy Johnson. He spent just three games in Hi-A Lakeland before a call-up with the Tigers, for whom he had a 6.10 ERA in 10 1/3 innings.
Though he walked 10 and struck out six, Miller still recalls that time fondly. He was, after all, the pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning when the Tigers clinched their first playoff berth in 19 years.
Even though he struggled in 2007, he remained enough of a prospect that he was a key chip in allowing the Tigers to acquire Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins. But his career never clicked in South Florida, where he had a 10-20 record and 5.89 ERA in three seasons preceding his trade to the Red Sox this winter (and the Sox’ subsequent non-tender and signing of Miller as a free agent).
He never had a chance to enjoy the necessary development time to achieve the mechanical consistency necessary to achieve results commensurate with his potential.
“He was a big high draft pick – sixth pick in the country – came to the big leagues real quick. I can see why,” said Francona. “But then you get to the big leagues, and if you’ve got some flaws or you’re not ready, sometimes you pay. With that big body, there were a lot of moving parts. He was throwing way across his body. It’s part of why he was effective, but it’s also part of why he wasn’t throwing a lot of strikes.”
Ross Detwiler, LHP, 2007 (1st round – No. 6), Nationals
Detwiler signed quickly with the Nats in hopes of hastening his journey to the majors, and hasten he did. He pitched in nine minor league games (eight starts) before pitching an inning in the majors in September.
The next year, he struggled in Hi-A, where he spent the full year. He’s shuttled between the majors and upper levels of the minors since 2009, going 2-9 with a 4.78 ERA in the big leagues. He’s spent this year in Triple-A, with an ERA in excess of 5.00, and no real prospect status to speak of.
Chris Sale, LHP, 2010 (1st round – No. 13), White Sox
Sale made 11 minor league appearances after signing quickly last summer and had a terrific debut at the end of 2010. He went 2-1 with four saves, a 1.93 ERA, 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 21 games (23 1/3 innings).
This year, he has been up and down for Chicago, going 2-0 with a 4.56 ERA, striking out 25 and walking 14 and giving up 27 hits in 25 2/3 innings. The jury is, of course, out on the left-hander, but it would appear that he is going through his own growing pains in Chicago.
Interestingly, Sale’s dimensions harbor some similarity to Miller’s. He’s a rangy 6-foot-6, 180-pound left-hander.
Both Miller and the Sox were mindful of these cautionary tales this winter. As such, they agreed that the best course for the pitcher and club was to agree to a minor league deal that would give him some of the development time that he missed out on during his hasty ascent to the majors.
Whether the lefty can make up for lost time remains to be seen. But, Miller’s recent performance – both during his last four minor league outings, when he struck out 26 and walked three batters – and his first big league start offer some hope.
It is no small task to erase a misstep in a player’s early development, but the Sox are hoping that they prove capable of doing just that. The potential remains there, as evidenced by the left-hander’s terrific pitch mix on Monday. Whether it can still be reached is the great unknown.
“Physically, at times, I’ve shown I have the ability to succeed at this level against the best teams,” noted Miller. “Ultimately, though, you’ve got to do it all the time, and confidence is huge in that. You build that by success. Success breeds confidence. That’s what I’m looking to do.”