"When will he come up to the majors?"
"Will it initially be as a starter or reliever?"
"Will he play a meaningful role this season?"
The questions are the same whether they originate from St. Louis Cardinals fans or prospective fantasy owners or sometimes, both.
In my years of trying to determine what the Cardinals may be intending to do before they do it, I have been able to rely on a few fundamental tenets. In the area of player movement to and from the majors, the relatively conservative approach of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan toward the deployment of youngsters seemed consistent over time.
That changed with the retirement of the manager and the leave of absence taken by the pitching coach. The assumptions about which I might have felt comfortable in the area of how the organization promotes and deploys prospects, especially pitchers, are now under question, if not thrown out the window entirely.
Neither new manager Mike Matheny nor pitching coach Derek Lilliquist have previously served in their roles at the major league level. Further, it may be that behind the scenes, general manager John Mozeliak may take an even more firm hand on these kinds of matters than during the La Russa era.
All that adds up to a new level of uncertainty regarding when players may be called up and how they are used.
There are multiple factors to consider. I chose six.
First of all, there is the aggressiveness of the organization. It seems reasonable to assume for now, without any other data, that Matheny and Lilliquist will remain somewhat cautious along the lines of La Russa-Duncan.
In the past, starting pitchers were often used in a relief role initially with St. Louis. This allowed them to get their feet wet in the majors without the pressure of starting, at least initially. Sometimes, the players came up for several bursts to cover short-term needs, only to be returned to Memphis for a later call-back.
Next is the readiness of the player. There is no doubt that Miller had a strong 2011 and ranks among the top prospects in baseball. Yet he also had an embarrassing off-the-field incident in the second half. Making sure the player is mature enough to handle the big leagues is a real consideration. Yet perhaps because it is impossible to measure from the distance of the internet, it is rarely mentioned.
From an experience perspective, Miller has logged less than 90 innings above Class A, so he is hardly dying on the vine. More importantly, he needs to continue to deploy his secondary offerings, an ongoing mission. Word is that Miller improved in this area late last season, but consistency along with results are always the desired outcomes.
Triple-A seems to await Miller in 2012, with a far more disruptive and challenging travel schedule ahead in the Pacific Coast League than he experienced in the Texas League last season. It could take some time to adjust to the grind as well as to the more experienced hitters, a number of whom have prior big-league experience.
Finally, we have what I consider the most challenging factor to predict – opportunity. There are several flavors to consider, including ineffectiveness, trades, injuries and roster status.
Opportunity - ineffectiveness
Coming into camp, the 2012 rotation is so set that the organization apparently could not find room for proven veteran Roy Oswalt. The pitchers at the back end of the rotation, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, each have guaranteed contracts. Unless major problems ensue, both seem set in their roles. At this stage of their respective careers, we know pretty much what to expect from each from a results perspective.
Opportunity – trades
A trade seems a less likely route to create an opportunity for Miller as both Lohse and Westbrook enjoy full no-trade protection. Could that be bought out? Of course the Cardinals could try, but they would have to eat considerable salary as well to make a move. They would also potentially have to deal with the ill will that could be generated if a trade initiative fails.
Further, the Cardinals are almost always buyers rather than sellers at the deadline. The potential of a second wild card coupled with the elimination of draft pick compensation for players dealt in-season signals the potential for less July movement across the game.
All that adds up to making the trade of a starting pitcher a low-odds opportunity, just as it was recently when Oswalt was under consideration.
Opportunity – injury
Injuries to rotation members are inevitable and every member of every MLB rotation has risks to some degree, with the Cardinals certainly having their share. Even so, Miller has yet to step to the head of the line for the unofficial sixth starter role. At this point, Lynn or Kyle McClellan would seem to be ahead of him, as well as tested Memphis starter Brandon Dickson and maybe even Maikel Cleto.
As Miller gains Triple-A experience, this picture should change but for any short-term need, it must be remembered that Lynn, McClellan, Dickson and Cleto all are on the 40-man roster and have prior MLB experience. More on that in a bit.
As noted, there is also the opportunity for Miller to step in as a reliever initially or potentially to make a spot start. I see this most likely happening in September, when rosters expand.
An earlier Miller move might be more likely if the Cardinals were out of contention and ready to audition prospects in August instead of competing to reach the post-season as is the case seemingly every year. As we saw last year with Tyler Greene, a playoff run can trump the best-intended plan to play kids.
Opportunity – roster status
There is also the related issue of the 40-man roster and option years. As noted above, Miller is not yet on the Cardinals' 40-man roster and solely based on MLB rules, he would not have to be added to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until late 2013.
If a need in St. Louis presents itself quickly, there are the other potential starters to consider as well as some top relief prospects who may also be in as good or better position to move up to St. Louis if someone is needed exclusively for a bullpen job. Right-handed relievers already on the 40-man roster but likely slated to open 2012 in Memphis include Adam Ottavino, Adam Reifer and Chuckie Fick. Then, there is non-roster invitee Scott Linebrink, a long-time MLB bullpenner.
The club can always find a way to make room for a player like Miller on the 40-man if there is a real need to add him, but there is no motivation to rush from a paperwork perspective. In fact, considering the long haul, it is often better to wait.
Though it seems unlikely the Cardinals will need all three allowable option years for Miller down the road, there are future compensation and free agency advantages for the organization to not start Miller's major league clock sooner than necessary.
Miller is an extraordinary talent - about that there can be no debate. The question is how aggressively he will be moved ahead in 2012. Miller, who will be 21 years of age until October, is expected to be a part of the Cardinals for years to come.
When all is said and done, assuming Miller continues to progress, the Cardinals will likely want to prepare him to be ready to step into one of the Lohse-Westbrook rotation openings in 2013. A September 2012 debut in a relief role, even if likely to be during a pennant chance, seems the most likely path ahead.
I am not alone in that view. Here is what Joe Strauss, Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote about Miller this past week.
"Top prospect and two-time organization pitcher of the year Shelby Miller, 21, is projected to open the season at Memphis and is a serious contender for next season's major-league rotation. A strong summer could allow Cardinals fans a glimpse of the 2009 draftee at Busch Stadium in September."
Rather than suggesting to my fantasy friends when to draft Miller, I will give you my gut feeling on the likelihood when the major alternatives may happen.
Odds of Miller in 2012
75% - Appearing in relief with perhaps a spot start or two when rosters expand in September
33% - Debuting earlier in the second half in a relief role and/or making a spot start or two on an emergency basis before returning to Memphis
10% - Spending significant time in the majors - making five or more starts
Agree? Disagree? What is your view?
Head over to The Cardinal Nation Blog to vote on what you think will happen with Miller in 2012. You are encouraged to add your comments.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column during the season at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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