When the Cleveland Indians acquired reliever Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees, the move went against everything that the team had made a reputation on. Prospects and quality drafts were emphasized as a key ingredient to sustained success, so in dealing the club’s top prospect Clint Frazier, young left-handed pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, and a pair of right-handed relief options in Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen, the team was notably throwing its own conventional wisdom out the window.
After seeing how instrumental Miller was to the Indians’ success, both in the second half of the regular season and throughout the entirety of the playoffs, the move appeared to be one of the best of the trading season across Major League Baseball.
The Indians could have reached the playoffs without Miller. But his presence stabilized the bullpen, brought out the best in Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and others, and enabled the Indians to persevere through the losses of starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar while giving Cleveland a very real chance of bringing home a world’s championship.
So given his largely positive results and the Indians’ normally restricted payroll, it’s no surprise that some might speculate that the $9 million man would be a potential trade chip for the club as it looks to bolster its roster for another run at a World Series. Teams should call and make offers and for the Indians, leaving one ear open for an offer much too good to pass up is an intelligent business move. But unless wowed by another club, the team should be in no hurry to move their big bullpen weapon.
Miller’s efforts were some of the talks of the playoffs. Until the final moments of the postseason, the left-hander was one of the most dominant and utilized weapons on any pitching staff in the game. Parting with one of the top relief arms in the game over the last several seasons seems like something no competitive team should be doing. He helped get the Indians to the playoffs and he helped push Cleveland through them by doing anything and everything asked by manager Terry Francona, including working multiple innings at a time. Without his willingness to be a total team player, there’s a chance Cleveland’s date with Chicago would have been cancelled.
The Indians gave up a lot to get Miller. The actual financial cost in the final months of the 2016 season was minimal, especially compared to his impact on the roster and the team’s record. The prospect cost was substantial though, especially given the questionable makeup of the Tribe outfield during the season. Rajai Davis gave the club a big boost, but he hits free agency another year older, despite a career year on the base paths. Tyler Naquin showcased his weaknesses at times in the second half, both defensively and offensively, when it appeared the high fastball was far too alluring to lay off. Brandon Guyer, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall all have their own shortcomings, and the best of the lot, Michael Brantley, is coming off of an eleven-game season that was otherwise lost to ongoing shoulder issues.
Frazier and the reigning number one prospect in the system, Bradley Zimmer, were at times a coin flip for the top spot in the farm system. The pair was expected to combine to be two-thirds of the Tribe’s future outfield, so parting with one for a relief arm was a costly endeavor. To turn around and then deal the hard-throwing southpaw hoping to recoup some of what was moved or more is a gamble.
And while it should not be a focal point of the debate, the Indians have felt the lingering PR problems created by trading CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee for nearly a decade. While Miller is no Cy Young winner, he was an All-Star in 2016 and rightfully was awarded the ALCS MVP award for his performance against Toronto. Given his affordable price tag and on-the-field performance with two more years on his contract, a deal of Miller may give a front office that has restored faith among its viewing populace a new black eye.
Miller was 10-1 during the 2016 season with a 1.45 ERA and 0.69 WHIP in 70 games between New York and Cleveland. He struck out 123 batters over 74 1/3 innings, or 14.9 per nine innings. After coming to the Indians, he appeared in 26 games, going 4-0 with three saves in three opportunities with a 1.55 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, and 46 strikeouts and just two walks in 29 innings.
His $9 million contract in 2017 and 2018 is affordable, even if it seems a lofty price to pay for a reliever. He gives the Indians another closer in the house and he is not just a conventional matchup left-hander. Cleveland does have some money potentially coming off of the books in the departures of Davis, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp, but several players signed to long-term deals will see their contracts escalate while others, including Allen, are looking at sizeable raises via arbitration. Indians ownership had said that they would spend when the time was right, and taking Game 7 of the World Series into extra innings certainly seems like a team that would merit some steady financial support.
For those in favor of moving Miller now, that old stigma about the Indians organization’s financial limitations will likely be a first point of contention. With Carlos Santana seeing a raise already, big money shifting hands in arbitration raises, and increases in dollars to several regular contributors inked in the past, the team’s contractual commitment would seem to be destined to be significantly higher than year’s past. With Allen’s early arbitration projections floating in the mid-$7 million range and Shaw’s in the mid-$4 million range, the team already has a chunk of cash committed to the backend of the bullpen. With that said, the organization also knows that it trotted a lot of ineffective arms to the mound in relief last season, so while it might be a lot of money spent, it may also be money well worth it.
Miller’s value may never be higher. He was the Angel of Death on the mound. His plus fastball, devastating back foot slider, and tall and lanky presence on the rubber earned him national attention as he made some very productive and professional hitters look like Little Leaguers. With several big dollar free agent relievers on the market (Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon) expecting to draw more than $12 million a year on multi-year deals, a team losing out on an upgrade for its bullpen may be willing to pony up some names to entice the Indians to consider a move of its more affordable reliever. Several teams with deep wallets (led by the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, and Cubs) are seeking to fill voids in the back ends of their respective bullpens.
He worked a lot of innings last season. His 74 1/3 innings between the Yankees and Indians were the most that he had thrown while working strictly as a reliever and the third-highest he had thrown in his entire career, dating back to 2008 and 2009 with the Florida Marlins when he worked predominantly as a starting pitcher. In addition to the big numbers logged in the regular season, he tacked on another 19 1/3 over ten appearances in the postseason, all of which were multi-inning outings. He was 2-0 in the playoffs for Cleveland with five holds, one save, a 1.40 ERA, and a 0.88 WHIP with 30 strikeouts and five walks during his work.
While the free agency wars may lead to Miller being a sought-after alternative, the Indians may be better suited to hold on until the trade deadline. If Cleveland has stumbled and fallen out of the playoff picture in its defense of its American League pennant, trading the useful arm to the top bidder to free up money over the following year and a half while bringing in new pieces to the organization would not be out of the question.
If the Indians are in the mix, it would likely be due to Miller’s contributions keeping the always volatile bullpen in a state of stability. The Indians bullpen went from an area of concern to an area of strength with his addition and the entire pitching staff benefited from the flexibility he helped create by having a deeper bullpen better able to cushion the injuries and struggles sustained by the rotation.
Miller’s best use for the Indians is not as offseason trade bait, but instead is as a returning member of the club for 2017.
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