When the Tigers added players to their 40-man roster last November, as teams do every season to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, there was one name that stood out among the others as a surprise that nobody had predicted would be added to the roster: Justin Miller.
I wrote about Miller in this article in November. Just last week, Dave Dombrowski mentioned Miller as one who might be in the mix for a roster spot in the Tiger bullpen this spring. His stats are found here at Baseball-Reference.
Drafted as a right-handed pitcher by the Colorado Rockies in the 47th round of the amateur player draft in 2006, Miller instead went to college at Cal State Fresno. He was selected two years later by the Texas Rangers in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, and began his professional baseball career. Over parts of five seasons, he has thrown 195 innings (all in relief) with an ERA of 3.51 and a WHIP of 1.23.
Miller suffered a setback in 2012, missing the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. He resumed his career in 2013, throwing 27 innings in the Ranger organization between Double-A and Triple-A with an ERA of 7.67 and a WHIP over 1.70. This was largely thanks to a walk rate of 5.3 per nine innings. Not too impressive. He was released by the Rangers on September 1st, and picked up by the Tigers.
Obviously, the Tigers saw something they liked with Miller. Not being put off by the small sample data since his surgery, the Tigers see a strikeout rate of 11.0 per nine innings in his 27 innings, already. In his last full season, Miller posted an impressive 9-1 record with an ERA of 1.81 and a WHIP of just 1.00 in 69 2/3 innings of work. He was good enough to be added to the Rangers' 40 man roster before being injured. If that is the real Justin Miller, then the Tigers might have something here.
No doubt, the Tigers have done their homework. You don't give away places on a major league roster unless you think there is a real chance that the player can help your team. Miller is the type of pitcher that plenty of teams would be willing to take a chance on, although that chance might often come in the form of an invitation to Spring Training on a minor league deal. The Tigers obviously believe that a team might be willing to pick him up if he were left unprotected. They also feel that he will be better than another player on the 40 man roster.
Keys to success
Miller needs to regain his form after recovering from surgery. He had steadily brought his walk rate down to 3.1 per nine innings. His 2011 numbers will be fine in any league.
Miller's ERA jumped from 1.81 in 2011 to 7.67 in 2013, and his WHIP went from 1.00 to 1.70 as he was coming back from surgery. Don't read too much into those 27 games in 2013 -- they're what made him available to the Tigers.
Miller is not your typical young prospect at age 26. Yet it's not unusual for a player like this to be available in the Rule 5 draft. The Tigers just grabbed themselves a player a couple weeks early without having to keep him on the 25 man roster or pay a waiver fee to claim him. It's a chance, but one that the Tigers were willing to take, considering they had eight open spots on the 40 man roster at the time.