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Why Andrew Miller will be starting in the minors

03.25.11 at 4:45 pm ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — There were plenty of unknowns when left-hander Andrew Miller signed his minor league contract with the Red Sox in December. No one could say with certainty where the 25-year-old — a wildly talented pitcher whose career results have never matched his potential — would start the season. Nor could anyone say in which role — starter or reliever — his work would occur.

But one thing was clear. For both Miller and the Sox, the goal was not trying to get Miller to maximize his season-opening contributions. Instead, in both the contract that they signed and the choices they were making, the pitcher and team were committed to Miller’s long-term development, hoping to put the former first-rounder in a position where he is most likely to achieve sustainable success.

And so, earlier this week, the Sox talked with Miller about their plans for him to start the year. After he threw 7 2/3 innings in seven spring training games, forging a 10.57 ERA while striking out six, walking four and allowing 11 hits, the Sox told Miller that he will go to minor league camp to be stretched out. He will work as a starter in Triple-A Pawtucket to open the year.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Miller’s most likely big league role in 2011 will be as a starter. He could still be either a starter or reliever, depending on how his work in the minors goes. But for a pitcher who has endured constant mechanical tinkering over the years, it was agreed that the best course of action was to give him the stability of a five-day routine on the mound that will include a side session. The idea, said manager Terry Francona, is to let Miller get repetition with his delivery.

“We thought about a lot of different stuff — pitching him every three days,” said Francona. “I think he agreed [with the idea of being a starter], because he can not only pitch in a game but then he can have a side day. I think he was really open to that. He can always pitch in the bullpen. But he gets starters’ innings, he’s stretched out, and it’s good for him. The more reps he gets, the better.”

As a starter, Miller will focus on fastball command and he will also have more of an opportunity to work with his changeup. That said, Francona believes that Miller’s slider is good enough that, whether he starts or relieves, the changeup is of less significance for the 6-foot-7 lefty than than it might be for other pitchers.

“He needs to command his fastball and work on his changeup. I thought his breaking ball was good right from the get-go. He’s got a nice feel for it. Almost a little surprising with that length in his body. He just really is comfortable with that pitch,” said Francona. “He’s just got to work on location with the fastball and certainly work on the changeup, but if he throws his fastball and breaking ball, he’s going to be fine. … He doesn’t need that third pitch as much as most pitchers do.”

While Miller’s final spring training stats were less than eye-opening, at times, his stuff was. He flashed a high-octane fastball and that wipeout slider that certainly have plus potential if he can command them and repeat them. Much as it was when Miller arrived in camp with the Sox, the future offers plenty of possibilities, but without a clear-cut path forward.

“If he pitches like we hope, he can be anything he wants. There’s a lot to like there,” said Francona. “I think we’re fortunate enough when we talk to him that he’s mature enough to understand that Opening Day wasn’t the end-all, the finishing line. Sometimes you see someone with that much potential and you don’t want to lose him and then the season starts and he doesn’t get to pitch enough and things don’t go right. I think this has a chance to really work out well.”

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