Welcome to Minor League Monday, our weekly look at the goings-on around the Washington Nationals’ minor league system.
The hunt for hidden bullpen gems amounts to an unofficial annual tradition for most major league teams, especially the Nationals. Though they entered this season with a more stable relief corps than at any point in the past few years, the horses at the back of that bullpen are now tiring, wearing down from overuse. The pitchers the Nationals thought they could count on for middle relief help, such as Shawn Kelley, Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover, have battled injuries. They might still help this season. But World Series contenders can’t take chances.
In the past, the Nationals could look inward for near-ready relief options, but they’ve tried out many of those, too. Young sinker-baller Trevor Gott has spent much of this season in the majors. Last year’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Wander Suero, is proving himself in the majors, too. Promising right-hander Austin L. Adams is still struggling to establish consistent command during his major league chances.
Bullpen-altering trades likely won’t materialize for months, so the Nationals probably have to wait to pursue external options. In the meantime, who else might be left in their system that could help the bullpen now? The most intriguing option might be a 30-year-old right-hander named Justin Miller.
The Nationals announced a corresponding move after placing right-handed setup man Ryan Madson on the disabled list with a pectoral strain Sunday, calling up left-hander Tim Collins from Class AAA Syracuse. Lefty Sammy Solis has appeared in 25 of 45 games, and the only other lefty in the bullpen is closer Sean Doolittle. Pulling up Collins, a former Kansas City Royals stalwart, makes sense.
But Miller has the best résumé of any reliever in the system. The Nationals signed him to a minor league deal this winter but did not invite him to major league spring training. He worked his way onto their radar this spring and has now thrown 13 2/3 scoreless innings over nine appearances to start the season. He is pitching to a 0.44 WHIP. He has struck out 23 batters in those 13 2/3 innings. In other words, he is dominating.
Miller has shown this potential before. The Texas Rangers drafted him. The Detroit Tigers gave him his first major league chance in 2014. His best years came with the Colorado Rockies in 2015 and 2016, and he pitched to a 0.96 WHIP over 33 innings with Colorado in 2015. In 88 1/3 major league innings, Miller has struck out 88 batters.
He fell off the radar slightly last season, before which he signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels but never stuck. By then, his velocity had fallen to somewhere around 90 mph with a slider in the low- to mid-80s. This year, his fastball is somewhere around 95, and his slider 89 mph, according to one person familiar with his process.
The difference was some offseason work at the Cressey Sports Performance Facility in Florida, where Brandon Kintzler and others go to hone mechanics and identify areas of muscular weakness that might be hindering their performance. After recommitting to his fitness this offseason, Miller’s stuff and stamina have increased. The Fresno State product is once again pitching like a classic middle relief type: a fastball/slider guy with enough velocity to disrupt hitter comfort and enough stuff to earn swings and misses regularly. If those velocity numbers are accurate and sustainable, Miller could provide greater fastball velocity than most of the Nationals’ other right-handed middle relief options — Kelley, Suero and Carlos Torres.
Velocity, of course, isn’t everything. But for a bullpen hunting lightning in a bottle — or even just someone it can count on in the fifth or sixth inning, or maybe to get a few outs late in games now and then — Miller looks like an obvious choice. His deal includes a June 15 opt-out, according to a person familiar with the situation, and given his numbers in Triple-A, he would almost certainly have suitors. Few teams could use him more than the Nationals, who are hunting bullpen help, and might just have some right under their noses.