Tigers plan patience for Miller's arm

Tigers plan patience for Miller's arm

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Andrew Miller really is a prospect, even though he has already reached the Majors. He sits somewhere in between.

He enters the first Spring Training of his career with more Major League innings (10 1/3) than Minor League ones (five). He was possibly a New York Mets win in the NLCS away from making a World Series roster just four months after pitching in the College World Series. In the Tigers' spring clubhouse, he can comfortably sit in the corridor for established veteran pitchers, and he knows more of the Detroit Tigers than he does the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

"It's kind of like a tease," Miller said, "because I know I'm going to be here, and then, obviously, from here, I don't know what to expect. I get to hang out with all these guys and get the first-class treatment, and then I certainly expect to have to go down to the Minors and climb my way back up just like everybody else."

He has enough Major League time to know the home clubhouse at Comerica Park, yet he's so young that he didn't have to shave there often.

"I have to shave," he said, "but the problem is, I have all these spots where I don't have to shave. The [other] spots I have to shave just about as often as anybody else. It's just patchy."

In a way, this camp is a second introduction for Miller to the Tigers organization. Though Miller's September callup was actually part of his contract, September was about Miller being a left-handed arm who could help in the bullpen right now. This spring is about Miller pitching for the next 10 years.

It's a balance that manager Jim Leyland has to remember, especially when he watches Miller unleash pitches in early spring bullpen sessions. When he was lined up with Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya in side sessions on Saturday, it seemed like a glimpse of the not-too-distant future.

"This guy's a blue-chipper," Leyland said. "There's no question about that. It's not going to be long for him, I don't think."

But it's not going to be immediate.

Miller is the closest in camp to being this year's version of Verlander or Zumaya, the kid who overwhelmingly impresses in Spring Training games. Yet no matter how much Miller impresses, Leyland says there's virtually no chance of him breaking camp with the big club. As much as Leyland likes to say that he'll go with talent, that he wants the 12 best pitchers on his staff, Miller is one of the reasons for Leyland to caution that the 12 best pitchers aren't necessarily the 12 best arms.

Realistically, Miller's situation is more similar to Verlander from two years ago. Then a 21-year-old prospect out of college, Verlander came to camp on a Major League contract and wowed the staff in Spring Training games, capping his performance by a striking out Ken Griffey Jr. to get out of a jam. He was among the first round of cuts and went to Class A Lakeland, where he could learn the rigors of being a professional starting pitcher.

"Going through Spring Training and starting the season, it's all new and exciting," Verlander recalled. "You've just got to adapt and prepare yourself for each level. Being able to adapt is just like being in the big leagues. Guys are going to change, and you're going to have to change yourself."

The toughest adaptation had nothing to do with opponents. It was the five-man rotation. In college, the rotation means pitching once a week.

"That was really tough for me," Verlander said. "I remember having to throw second-day bullpens and feeling like my arm would just fall off. In college, it's every seven days and you get three days' rest before you throw a bullpen again. Here, usually, the second day is the most sore day and I have to go out and try to throw a bullpen. That was tough for me."

Miller is already bracing for that.

"I'm curious to see how my arm holds up," he said. "Probably more than likely, unless something unforeseen happens, I'll probably have more innings this year than I ever had in one season. I think that's one of the big things [about] being in my first year in pro ball, just figuring out how all that stuff and how your body holds up to it."

Verlander handled it pretty well. That, combined with his talent, put him on the fast track. A fast start at Lakeland put him at Double-A Erie by midseason. A schedule quirk for Detroit with a holiday doubleheader in Cleveland left the Tigers looking to call up an extra arm for a onetime start. When the staff got together to discuss the best candidate, Verlander was the choice. He went up, struggled with nerves through five innings, came back down, then made another onetime start a few weeks later before shoulder fatigue ended his season.

Those starts gave Verlander an idea of what he needed to work on to be ready to compete for a job the next spring. Miller, thanks to his September stint, already knows where he needs help before anyone points it out.

"I need to throw strikes, if that's what you're looking for," he said. "That's my answer to just about every question I've been asked lately, but it's the truth. And I'll be the first to admit it. It doesn't bother me. But that's certainly where I need to work the most."

Miller gave up more walks (10) than hits (eight) in his stint as a big-league reliever, though more than half of those walks came in two games -- one of which had Miller doing mop-up work. Seven of those walks came against left-handed hitters, which should dispel the notion that his nasty cutter and slider could work as weapons for a left-handed specialist right now.

Miller doesn't want to think about any Major League innings this year -- not right now, anyway. He lists his goal as getting through an entire season, wherever that is. Yet when Leyland goes through his list of pitchers who could fill in if any of his starters happens to get hurt, he can't leave Miller off. He just puts him further down the list for the time being.

"Obviously, it's pretty unlikely that he'd be on the Major League club when we break camp this year," Leyland said. "But in saying that, it would not surprise me if at some point this year he might make the jump."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.