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Andrew Miller Looking to Find Comfort Zone in Boston

Pitcher Andrew Miller #30 of the Boston Red Sox laughs with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia #39 during a game against the Houston Astros. (Photo courtesy of Bob Levey, ESPN.com)

The Red Sox sure have perfected the whole “easing young starting pitchers in” routine.

I like to call them the Quadruple-A starts. Try your luck at the gutter dwellers of the major leagues before testing out Sunday night baseball in the Bronx. If you can keep Robert Andino guessing in the box, maybe you’re ready for a Robinson Cano.

While the majority of young arms in the Boston system experience some form of this initiation, 26-year-old lefty Andrew Miller isn’t new to Major League chances. This is the third professional go-around for the former first-rounder.

Seizing the Opportunity

His five starts for the Red Sox have resulted in four team victories and a 3-1 record. Yet that’s a misleading statistic since the four wins came against San Diego, Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore. Each ranks in the bottom half in the majors in run-scoring output. His run support has also been through the roof and his WHIP of 1.82 is Matsuzaka-like.

Despite weak competition and help from the bats, the Sox brass can’t fault Miller. Besides Friday’s fiasco in Tampa Bay, he’s executed solid outings to counter a train wreck of rotation health problems.  An unexpected surprise typically comes with every championship run, and Miller could be 2011’s Hideki Okajima.

Contrary to Okajima’s one-year burst of success, there is a lot more talent yet to explode out of this southpaws’ arm. Most pundits will say he has earned the right to get starts over John Lackey. Lackey has been disappointing in his sophomore season in Boston (7-8, 6.70 ERA). Most pundits also know that with the money Lackey is making, Terry Francona wont give up on the guy—not for one bad start or a half-dozen.

With Tim Wakefield clutching the last starter spot (provided he stays consistent), Miller will be the odd man out when the Sox are healthy. That’s to say that the Sox stay healthy. Concerns continue to linger over Clay Buchholz, who’s been absent for about a month. Josh Beckett feels like he could tweak out an ankle or a leg at any minute.

It will take an unexpected setback for a staff mainstay to give Miller a long-term role in 2011. With Alfredo Aceves eating innings in long relief along with Matt Albers, the open ticket for a bullpen position is also expiring fast.

A Shaky History

The towering Miller was supposed to be a bullpen guy from the beginning. The problem:  he wasn’t any good at it. This became apparent during his 2006 rookie season in Detroit.

The second problem: Detroit forced his switch to starter too abruptly (in my opinion). That resulted in some solid starts early in 2007, but what eventually became a slow fade away into August of that year. Shortly after, he was shipped to Florida.

One thing I’m fascinated by when it comes to the development of a young kid is how much a club can screw him up. During the years when guys like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were learning to become upper rotation superstars, Miller was struggling to stay afloat in Florida. 2008 through 2010 was a forgettable time for the lanky lefty down in the Sunshine state. Miller danced back and forth between Triple-A and MLB action, and between good and bad starts.

I’m equally fascinated by how much another club can put a guy back together. Cue last November’s trade that said goodbye to the more than expendable Dustin Richardson. Francona never considered Richardson more than a last resort. Miller, meanwhile, is an intriguing project.

Going Forward

Molding him into a successful project will require two things: one this year and one possibly next year. Miller needs to prove that he is consistent and capable of facing a skilled opponent. 7 runs against the Rays wont help his case. He needs to right the ship before the rotation returns. I have no doubt that he’ll get a September call up, but I don’t see him on the playoff roster.

Should he remain on the team next spring, they ought to have him and Wakefield battle for the rotation (provided Wakefield doesn’t retire). It’s a long ways away to be looking, but for every ugly outing that Miller has had in the majors, he’s been brilliant in another.

That sounds like a kid who just needs some coaching and some comfort in a Major League role. The Boston uniform could finally hand him that.

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