LAKELAND, Fla. — Justin Miller has never pitched at the big-league level, but he has a chance to help the Detroit Tigers this season.
Miller, 26, missed all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery when he was with the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers, who had depth in relievers in their system, released Miller, but it didn’t take long for other teams to come calling, including the Tigers.
"Detroit was the first one," Miller said. "They called me two days after I got released. Al (Avila, assistant general manager) called me personally and told me a bunch of good things, had a really good talk.
"Gave my agent the information, they started talking. Within a week, they had a minor-league deal worked out."
The Tigers were so high on Miller that they decided to put him on the 40-man roster to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 Draft.
"Coming back now — second year from Tommy John surgery — with his stuff, he’s the kind of guy that if we had in our system, we would consider him a prospect very close to being able to help us at the big-league level," Avila said. "So that’s why we tried to jump on it right away.
"He should be able to compete for a job this year and help us in the bullpen, be a real good relief pitcher for us."
Miller said coming back from the surgery was a difficult process.
"First year after the surgery, it’s up and down," Miller said. "Some days, you feel good. Some days, you feel bad. There were some days when I didn’t feel my fingertips. I couldn’t feel the ball coming out of my hands. There’s other days when I couldn’t feel my arm at all.
"It was just like I was a fish out of water on the mound. It was just like trying to learn how to throw all over again."
Miller pitched in 27 minor-league games last season, going 1-1 with a 7.67 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. He said he didn’t start feeling normal again until almost the end of the year.
"Towards the very end of the season, my last two outings, I threw a bullpen before my last outing and felt great," Miller said. "I was able to thrown on line. I was able to keep everything down.
"I was able to stay (with) good timing and then went out there my last outing and everything felt good, but I ended up pulling an oblique."
Miller has three pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a change-up and slider, and is excited about the opportunity he has in spring training.
"I feel like I’m back where I was before," Miller said. "As far as confidence-wise and my arm, I feel great, and just go out there and pitch and see what happens."
Miller has already visited Detroit. He came to town in late January for the Winter Caravan and TigerFest.
"I got to meet a couple guys, hang out with Joba (Chamberlain) and Dirksy (Andy Dirks) and Don Kelly, hang out with all these guys and chat them up a little bit," Miller said. "Everybody’s great, everybody’s buddies and everybody wants everybody to do the best they can. It’s kind of like a family atmosphere."
Although Miller is aware that the Tigers have extremely high expectations, he doesn’t want to think about that as he attempts to make the team.
"You put excess pressure on yourself, then you just tighten up and don’t pitch your best," Miller said. "Just go out there and play the game you enjoy and love, and just go out there and let your talents take over."