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Tigers sign RHP Shelby Miller to a one-year contract

The veteran found new life with the Dodgers in 2023.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday morning, the Tigers picked up another stocking stuffer, as it were. Kiley McDaniel of ESPN first reported that the club was in agreement with veteran right-hander Shelby Miller on a one-year contract with a club option for 2025. The Tigers will pay him $3M in 2023, with a club option worth $4.25M for 2025. The deal includes incentives for amount of innings pitched.

The 33-year-old reliever found new life in 2023 by developing a splitter during his season in the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen. After several years struggling with injuries and trying to make the switch to a relief role, Miller posted a 1.71 ERA/3.68 FIP for the Dodgers in 42 innings of work.

It’s been a long, strange road for the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2009 first round pick. Selected out of high school, Miller produced good numbers in his 2013 full season debut but struggled in his sophomore season. The Cardinals dealt him to Atlanta, where Miller bounced back with the best season of his pro career.

Miller tossed 205 13 innings for the Braves with a 3.02 ERA that year, and was then used in a bit of a heist as the Arizona Diamondbacks gave up shortstop Dansby Swanson and outfielder Ender Inciarte to acquire him. In three injury plagued seasons, Miller didn’t give the Diamondbacks much of anything while Swanson went on to become a very good major league shortstop. The Texas Rangers signed Miller as a bounceback project in 2019, and he struggled there too. That was the last season Miller worked regularly as a starter.

The San Francisco Giants picked up Miller for the 2022 season, so Scott Harris presumably has an affinity for the veteran pitcher. Still, he was injured again that year and pitched just seven innings for the Giants. Leave it to the Dodgers to figure things out.

Miller has a couple of attributes the Tigers appear to value more highly than some teams. First, serious extension on the mound. Miller averaged 7.3 feet of extension to home plate with his fastball in 2023, which puts him in between Sawyer Gipson-Long and Matt Manning with some of the better extension in the game. That extension and a low release point combine well with Miller’s above average vertical and horizontal movement on his fourseam fastball. So, despite losing a bit of velo and averaging 93.4 mph in 2023, the heater was extremely effective.

Developing better extension with his lanky 6’4” frame and lowering his release points have been ongoing projects for Miller in recent years despite changing teams constantly. There seems to be some consensus between the Giants and Dodgers that this is the path for him. What he’s really needed though, is a better out pitch than his slider.

In 2023, Miller developed an effective splitter with the Dodgers, and that pitch seems to have a fair amount of interest from the Tigers nowadays. Hitters did nothing with Miller’s 85.6 mph splitter in 2023. His 30.7 percent whiff rate is solid, though not great, but hitters couldn’t barrel it up at all and hit just .136 against the pitch. His expected stats say hitters weren’t really getting unlucky either, as does the miserable 82.1 average exit velocity off the split.

Miller is a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher, getting just 37.4 percent ground balls, yet he suppressed home runs quite well for the Dodgers and could do even better pitching in Comerica Park. He uses the splitter against lefties as his main secondary, but still mixes in his slider against right-handed hitters. The slider doesn’t really get great whiff rates, so finding a different secondary in the splitter was crucial for him last year.

He’s been so injury prone over the last 4-5 years until 2023 that it’s hard to draw much out from comparisons to those years, but it’s clear the splitter was a big game changer for him last year. Making the fourseam fastball and the splitter the two main pieces for him will perhaps require some re-shaping of the breaking ball to get that pitch back on track as well.

Overall, Miller’s only flaw on the mound in 2023 was his ongoing trouble with walks. The strikeout rate is solid, and Miller didn’t allow many home runs. If the Tigers can get him in the zone a little more without giving up more home runs, there may be a little bit left to unlock.

His real issue remains staying on the mound. Miller has had shoulder and elbow problems all throughout the last five seasons, and last year he struggled with a nerve issue in his neck that affected the feeling in his throwing hand. After a decent start, Miller went on the injured list in mid-June and didn’t return until the last day of August. From that point on, he allowed no runs over 12 innings with 11 strikeouts and just one walk allowed. He continued that streak with a two inning scoreless performance in the Dodgers ill-fated NLDS loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is a bit of a curious signing by the Tigers with so much of the offseason left and three pitchers already added in free agency, but it should only strengthen what looks like a pretty strong bullpen group. Will Vest, Jason Foley, Tyler Holton, Andrew Chafin, Alex Lange, and now Miller are the core guys in the pen. Right-hander Miguel Diaz performed well last year and is out of options, but most of their other options at the end of the pen, from Beau Brieske and Brendan White to Alex Faedo, still have at least one option remaining.

So the Tigers certainly had room to add another quality reliever, and as they seem wholly uninterested in any big moves again this offseason, continuing to build depth where possible is crucial. Miller, even more than Kenta Maeda or Jack Flaherty, is unlikely to give the Tigers a full season’s work, but with the depth they have in the upper minors, they’re in a position to care less about durability than other teams. When Miller is out there, he should be effective. When he isn’t, the Tigers don’t mind having innings to offer whomever of their Triple-A level relief prospects is going best at the time.

In a corresponding move, catcher Donny Sands was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot. If the Tigers don’t sign him to a minor league deal they’ll be on the hunt for catching depth to pair with prospect Dillon Dingler in Triple-A the rest of the offseason.