It is again that time of year when my regular job of covering the St. Louis Cardinals system intersects with my fantasy efforts here.
Everyone is out looking for sleepers and guys poised to make a big step up in the coming season. As a result, I am often contacted by friends with questions about Cardinals prospects.
For the second year in a row, number one on my most-asked-about list is right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller. It is for good reason, as the 22-year-old is one of the very best prospects in the game. Add to that shoulder soreness reported earlier this week and fantasy owners are nervous.
Still, if people were excited about Miller 12 months ago, they are doubly energized now. The difference is that last year, Miller was simply not ready for the bigs. Here is a summary of my advice from this column last February:
“I give Miller very low odds of making a significant fantasy impact anytime in 2012.”
When all was said and done, that was dead on target. After not following the club’s training blueprint and reporting to camp too light, Miller had a dreadful first half. With an ERA at 6, he then got his act together in such an impressive manner that the organization added him to the 40-man roster and called him up to St. Louis for the final month.
Given the start in game 162, Miller showed what he is capable of, tossing six innings of shutout ball at the National League Central champs from Cincinnati. He fanned seven and walked two while allowing just one hit.
Here in the spring of 2013, Miller reported to camp with a legitimate shot at the rotation spot vacated by Chris Carpenter. Set to battle with a couple of other hard-throwers, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, for the starting berth, that plan was delayed when Miller came down with shoulder soreness mid-week.
There was a significant level of over-reaction in some quarters when the injury news was disclosed. Headlines screamed that Miller was shut down and some worried that he might be on anti-inflammatories. Apparently, they are unfamiliar with Advil.
The red alert was canceled by Friday, when Miller threw a bullpen with no issues. While the injury is not expected to be serious, any shoulder concerns clearly still bear watching.
Rosenthal is getting the ball in the club’s spring opener on Saturday and he and Kelly could build up a head start in their three-way race. Miller’s official spring debut will have to wait, though it should be days, not weeks, barring a setback.
Frankly, even before this week's news, I felt there was a decent chance that Miller would be back in the Minors to start the season. With other viable rotation alternatives, the Cardinals can afford to delay Miller’s arbitration/free agency clock.
Miller picked up 30 days of service time last fall. By keeping him in Triple-A for a couple of months to begin the 2013 season, the Cardinals could essentially secure an extra year of his services, pre-free agency. If they could hold off until mid-season, they could also avoid Miller's Super Two arbitration designation following the 2015 season, saving considerable money in at least one contract year.
The former is considerably more important than the latter, in my opinion.
However, even if one or both happen, my 2013 prediction for Miller is very different from the 2012 version. This time, his health-willing, I do believe the Texan will register on the fantasy radar. My projection is two-thirds of the season at most.
In addition to the vacated Carpenter spot, left-hander Jaime Garcia has recently dealt with shoulder problems of his own. Whoever does not win the rotation spot coming out of camp between Kelly and Rosenthal would very likely open the season in St. Louis’ bullpen. I could see Miller starting every fifth day in Triple-A until the next opening occurs.
In a few months, it could become Miller Time for good.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 14-year history. Though he is the only one to remember or care, he also finished second in each of the two subsequent seasons. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.