At the trade deadline, the Orioles picked up Andrew Miller from the Red Sox in exchange for Eduardo Rodriguez to bolster the bullpen. At the time, Nate wrote that the O's could have used Rodriguez to acquire a more significant piece (and one that potentially didn't depart after 2014). Meanwhile, Matt Perez analyzed why the O's were willing to part with Rodriguez. Regardless, we all agreed that Miller made the O's at least slightly better and were excited to watch him pitch in Baltimore.
Miller had been a good but not great relief option for Boston the last few seasons, but in 2014 he was able to limit his walks while striking out even more batters. In 42.1 innings with Boston in 2014, Miller struck out 14.7 batters per nine innings while walking only 2.8 batters per nine. But with the Orioles, Miller was even better. In his 20 regular season innings after he was acquired, Miller posted a 15.3 K/9 and a BB/9 of only 1.8. His ERA was about a full run better, and his FIP and xFIP each dropped by about a half run each. Considering how low those numbers already were, that's fantastic. He was also excellent in his five postseason relief appearances. In 7.1 combined innings in the American League Division Series and the AL Championship Series, he allowed only three baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk, 1 HBP) and no runs.
The Orioles targeted Miller because he's a hard-throwing lefty who can pitch effectively against both right- and left-handed batters. He also finishes opposing hitters off with strikeouts (thanks to his phenomenal slider) -- a skill O's pitchers don't have in abundance. Miller was the team's best pitcher out of the bullpen in the regular season after the trade and also in the playoffs, and the Orioles got everything they could have wanted from him. But Miller is a free agent now, and he's positioned himself for quite a payday.
Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors is projecting that Miller will receive a four-year, $32 million contract. That's a significant chunk of money to pay a pitcher who will likely throw between 50 and 70 innings each season. The Royals' overpowering late-game relievers (along with Miller himself) have demonstrated how shutdown relievers can be even more valuable in the postseason, with the amount of time off between games allowing relievers to pitch a larger percentage of a team's innings than they normally would. But a team has to make the playoffs first for that to even matter, and the O's may be unwilling to shell out nearly twice the amount per season that their current highest paid reliever (Darren O'Day, $4.25 million club option) will make in 2015, especially with so many other moving parts this offseason (Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, plenty of arbitration increases, etc.).
Let's double back to Miller's fantastic 2014 for a moment. First, he was one of just 10 relievers with an fWAR over 2. And in the expansion era (1961-2014), only seven other pitchers had a season in which they threw at least 62 innings with a K/9 of at least 14.5 (two accomplished this feat twice).
A few notes: Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are awesome. Miller is the only non-closer on this list (he's the only pitcher with fewer than 22 saves). At 29, he's also the oldest.
Unlike many of the pitchers on the above list, Miller has never really dealt with an extreme workload. That can both be attributed to his general ineffectiveness as a starting pitcher and a couple of prior injuries. His 62.1 innings this season were the most he's thrown as a reliever, and the most since his 65 innings in 2011, when he made 12 starts. So it's not like he's been dealing with 70- or 80-inning seasons out of the bullpen.
Considering the price of a win (about $6 million), if Miller is anything close to a two-win pitcher the next couple seasons, a four-year, $32 million deal for him will be a bargain. However, Miller has never been quite this good. As noted, he's only worked exclusively as a reliever for a few seasons; in 2012 and 2013 he combined for an fWAR of 1.1. He also has a career 4.91 BB/9 -- 5.04 as a starter and 4.67 as a reliever. So even though he cut down on his walks in 2014, they're still at least a minor concern.
Miller is extremely talented, and any bullpen could use his unique skills. But relievers are strange. They can be awesome one year, and not quite so good the next. The O's also already have a pretty solid bullpen, and it may be wise to spend that $32 million or however much they would allocate for Miller in another area or two. Perhaps this new-and-improved Miller is the real deal and is here to stay, but that is probably a risk another team should take. It's a tough call to pay Miller like one of the best relievers in baseball when he's really only been in that class for one season.
It's possible to build an effective bullpen without handing out long-term contracts. In fact, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have already shown they can do just that. The O's built a strong bullpen with a collection of failed starters (Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter), unheralded signings (Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb), a trade (Brad Brach), and the rule 5 draft (T.J. McFarland). It's not easy to build an effective bullpen, but it is at least easier to find pitchers who can succeed in 50-inning relief roles instead of 140-inning starting roles. The O's also may have an extra starting pitcher to dangle in a trade, and there's also no guarantee that Matusz and Hunter aren't traded or non-tendered.
If the Orioles do find themselves in a similar winning situation next year and feel they need to strengthen the bullpen, there's no reason why they can't go out and find a useful relief pitcher on the trade block. Miller was outstanding for the O's, but the price was high. And it's not like he was the only effective reliever acquired at or near the deadline. He was the best, sure, but the Angels got Huston Street despite not having a very strong farm system. The Royals picked up Jason Frasor. The Nationals acquired Matt Thornton on waivers by just agreeing to pick up his 2015 salary. And that's just a few. A single reliever may matter more in the playoffs, but that's just not the case during the regular season.
The Orioles won't be able to re-create Miller's abilities with one or two moves or signings, but they can get close. And then they can use some or all of those savings for some corner outfield help, or maybe a bench bat. That's probably the avenue I'd take.
Photo by Keith Allison