Adam Miller’s tough road back from finger injury

May 5th 2008: Pitcher Adam Miller of the Buffalo Bisons, Class-AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, during a game at Dunn Tire Park in Buffalo, NY.

Getty Images

Early last week, the Indians announced the signing of right-handed pitcher Adam Miller to a minor league contract.

His return to the organization did not bring the fanfare Miller once did when he was a fast-rising pitching prospect in his late teens and early 20s, but he is excited for an opportunity to pitch once again in affiliated ball.

"I called [the Indians] up and was talking to [Vice President of Player Development] Ross Atkins and I said I was just looking to get into camp to show what I could do," Miller said. "They said there was a possibility of that. They said if I came in they wanted me to work on some different mechanics and said if I was willing to do that then they would take a look at me and so far so good."

Miller has yet to appear in a minor league spring game, but has been throwing bullpens and working on the new mechanics. If he impresses the Indians enough this spring he will probably open the season in extended spring training to continue his work. If things work out he could go to Double-A Akron or Triple-A Columbus later in the year if an opportunity arises and he is healthy and pitching well.

"It is more tilt and using my backside more and riding it out," Miller said of his mechanics changes. "I can’t really even describe it, but it is just using my legs more. I am still over the top and everything — actually my arm angle is up a little more. It is kind of like what Trevor Bauer is doing and that same philosophy."

Indians sign Miller for yet another comeback attempt

Miller’s return comes after a two-year absence after he left the organization as a minor league free agent after the 2011 season. He signed a minor league deal with the Yankees and pitched in their minor league system in 2012 before being released in June of that year, and then finished the year pitching in independent ball with Grand Prairie. He spent last season pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League.

"Sugar Land was good and was a great place to throw," Miller said. "The team was great and it was still baseball and I had a good time with it. There were some things I kind of would have liked to have changed a little [with the Yankees]. I felt good and would have liked to stay a reliever over there, but they wanted me to start so I started. I know numbers-wise I wasn’t great, but I felt great."

Many will recall that Miller, now 29-years old, is a former top flight starting pitching prospect that had all the ability to become one of the game’s next great pitchers. From the day he was selected by the Indians in the first round of the 2003 Draft as a then 18-year-old out of McKinney High School in Texas he was the Indians best prospect in their system and quickly established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.

Miller had a sensational showing at Double-A Akron in 2006 when he went 15-6 with a 2.75 ERA, his 161 strikeouts set a franchise record and he was named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year. He followed that up with a great showing in major league spring training in 2007 with 14 dominant shutout innings and had many believing he would be in Cleveland at some point that season. He was a finished product, had number-one stuff and had the prospect pedigree, but an injury to his right middle finger in May of 2007 ruined his career.

"In 2007, I threw against Rochester at home and went six or seven innings," Miller recalled about the first time the finger bothered him. "I felt fine after it and the next day we bussed to Rochester and I was still fine. Then I went to do my throwing program and my finger was sore, so I just thought it was no big deal and threw light at 60 feet. I didn’t think anything of it, then the next day I went out and it was sore again. So when I got on the mound and I couldn’t throw it downhill and it just felt weird and that was the start of that."

Miller ended up having several surgeries over the course of the 2007 and 2008 seasons to try and repair a broken callous and to seal a gap in the finger which came about from a ligament in his finger causing his skin to sag up against the baseball. He rehabbed from the initial surgery and pitched well in the 2008 offseason in winter ball and went into spring training in 2009 as a legit option for the Indians bullpen, but a few weeks into spring training the finger acted up again and he was shut down and ended up having exploratory reconstructive finger surgery.

Bros become roommates

"My finger felt different but it didn’t hurt," Miller said. "I came into spring training in 2009 and was competing for a spot in the bullpen, and sure enough after the first intrasquad game I threw, the next day I was sore."

Miller had the first of three surgeries in April of 2009 to repair the flexor pulley system by replacing two pulley ligaments in the finger with a tendon from his wrist and put a silicon rod in it so scar tissue would not form around the tendon. He underwent the second planned surgery in July of 2009 to clean up the scar tissue as a result of the first surgery and attach the new tendon from his leg to his middle finger. He suffered a setback during his rehab in the fall and ended up requiring a third surgery in December of 2009 to stabilize the flexor tendon reconstruction in his finger.

He has not had any issues with the finger since, but after all of the surgeries Miller has seen the quality and consistency of his stuff take a significant step back.

"The finger has been fine and there honestly has really been nothing out of the ordinary," Miller said. "There is some soreness at times, but that is just part of baseball. Maybe the shorter stints pitching in relief has been better for the arm [and finger]. The velocity is down as I am 90-96 MPH, but it is still fine. The hardest part has been the offspeed."

Prior to his finger issues Miller’s fastball was a plus-plus offering that sat at 96-98 MPH and touched 101 MPH, but the slider was his best pitch in his arsenal and was another plus-plus graded offering because of its excellent tilt, great late break and the command he had with it. But he now struggles to find the feel he once had for the slider.

"There are times when the offspeed is normal, but it has been inconsistent and actually more bad than good," Miller said. "I am hoping that with these new mechanics it will help me stay behind the ball a little better and then it will be a little more consistent. It doesn’t need to be the same as it used to be. I just need a secondary offering I can go to and trust. I feel pretty confident with my fastball. I just need a feel for something else. I have actually been working on my changeup again too, and I actually think that might be my second best pitch now that I go to."

It has been over a decade since Miller came into the system as a young pitching phenom, one that Sports Illustrated in 2007 named to their "Dream Rotation" which was an up-and-coming dream five-man rotation compiled by 11 high-ranking Major League executives.

Yet even with all of that missed potential because of a recurring freak injury that was out of his control, it is not the missed chance to pitch in the big leagues that makes Miller wonder what could have been, it is the wonder of how good he might have actually been which bothers him the most.

"I feel like I definitely would have gotten up there [to the big leagues]," Miller said. "I remember in 2006 I had a good year in Double-A and then in 2007 I came to spring training and I think I had a chance to get a September callup that year. I thought I was ready then. Just from 2006 and big league camp in 2007 and the start of Triple-A that year, I felt like I was twice as good as in 2006. But the main thing I think of is I don’t know if I ever really reached my peak as far as my abilities. It just never felt like I got to that point where this is as good as I am getting. That is what is most frustrating. The big league part I am pretty sure would have come if I stayed healthy."

Now, Miller is just trying to find his way back into affiliate ball and do enough for the Indians to consider him for a spot on one of their full season teams this season and see how he does. He knows his days as a starter are behind him and that the bullpen is where he will have to make his mark.

"I definitely don’t want to start," Miller noted. "I mean, I would, but I would rather not. I think just now where I am at I am better off as a reliever. I don’t have the same stuff as far as seeing a lineup two or three times, so I am just trying to get in for one or two innings and in short stints."

At his age, with his injury history and with the step back in his stuff, Miller knows he is a longshot to ever get that long overdue call to the big leagues. For him, the past is the past and he is just looking ahead and waiting to see what happens.

"All of that is over with and things are different now, so you have to adjust to that," Miller said. "Now I just have to become as good as I can with what I got. I think a lot of it now is just kind of trusting it and repeating it. It is what it is and I will just try to be as good as I can."