The Diamondbacks’ front office has certainly been the subject of plenty of criticism over the past couple of seasons. Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa have authored some...interesting deals, we’ll say, but none were more criticized than the price they paid to the Braves for right-hander Shelby Miller: a controllable, MLB-level outfielder in Ender Inciarte along with two top prospects in Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. Along with the $200+ mil signing of Zack Greinke over the winter, the Diamondbacks pushed their chips to the middle of the table in an effort to win now.
It’s laughable to consider that after all the hype that their offseason generated, the Diamondbacks are mired in last place in the NL West with a 41-59 record. That’s even worse than our beloved local nine’s mark of 43-55. The club lacked the necessary depth to deal with injuries to stars like A.J. Pollock and Greinke as well as to compensate for the significant struggles that Miller has endured this season. Across 14 starts covering 69.1 big league innings in 2016, Shelby has worked to a 7.14 ERA and 5.65 FIP with a 50:34 K/BB ratio.
Despite earning a $4.35 mil salary this season in his first run through arbitration, Arizona optioned Miller to AAA on July 14th. According to recent reports, they have now made Miller available in trade scenarios and have lowered their asking price significantly compared to what they gave up to acquire the hurler back in December.
This should pique Slingin’ David Stearns’ interest. Milwaukee’s GM has already seen two buy-low trade acquisitions pay off handsomely this year (Jonathan Villar, Aaron Hill), and in spite of his struggles this year Miller was very recently a highly effective starting pitcher. From 2013 (his first full season in the big leagues) through 2015, the former Cardinal and Brave worked to a 3.27 ERA and 3.87 FIP in 561.2 innings pitched, posting a 19.9% K rate, 8.7% BB rate, and 42.3% ground ball rate.
There are some red flags, of course, given Miller’s poor run prevention this season. His average fastball velocity is down nearly a mile and a half per hour to 92.7 MPH from his peak of 94.1 MPH last season, which may be partially responsible for the plummet in his strikeouts (just 15.7% K rate this year). His swinging strike rate has dropped from 9.2% last season to 7.1% in 2016, and his 10.7% BB rate this year would be by far a career-worst.
At just 25 years old, it’s tough to peg a physical decline as the reason for Miller’s struggles this year. For what it’s worth, according to Pitch F/X he’s nearly abandoned the use of his two-seam fastball this year, throwing it just 6.8% of the time after using it on 34.1% of his offerings last season. His four-seam usage has risen drastically to make up the difference, from 33.0% last year to 56.8% this season. So perhaps a different approach to pitching from a different organization may be part of the blame for why Shelby has been so awful this year. Perhaps the weight of the D-Backs expectations for him and their team were of detriment, as well. That’s just my own speculation, of course.
Given his age and track record, there’s reason to believe that it’s possible for Miller to rebound back to the mid-rotation starter he was during his first three full seasons in the big leagues. Perhaps a change of scenery and some new coaching and mechanical adjustments could be the catalyst to a return to form.
The difficult part of a potential Shelby Miller deal is valuing what should be offered in return. I’ve asked around on Twitter, and no one seems to have a good idea what the Diamondbacks might ask for in exchange for their scuffling starter (who has posted a 4.63 ERA in 11.2 AAA innings thus far). David Stearns’ job is to ask these questions, of course, and if he’s told that all it would take is a couple of mid-level prospects, maybe something in the vein of a Tyrone Taylor/Clint Coulter/Tyler Wagner/Cy Sneed type, then that is a deal I would be in full support of.
Beyond rookie stalwarts Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, the Brewers’ starting rotation has been sort of a mess this season and there would definitely be innings available to potentially insert Miller into the mix. Payroll shouldn’t be an issue, either, as Milwaukee’s roughly $60 mil in salary commitments this year puts them at the bottom of the league and is some $40 mil lower than last season.
As stated above, this was Miller’s first year of arbitration eligibility and he entered this season with 3.030 years of MLB service. He’s already spent 13 days in the minor leagues this season and if he were kept in AAA until the end of August, his service time would be held in check long enough to give the D-Backs or any acquiring club another three years of arbitration control over the righty. If he’s recalled before then, he’d instead be eligible for free agency after another two seasons. Either way, he doesn’t figure to earn much of a raise next season based on his work in 2016.
The rebuilding Brewers would be able to afford Miller plenty of time and opportunity to round back into form. If he can even come close to the sub-3.50 ERA hurler that he’s been in the past, then that’s another significant asset that Milwaukee would be in possession of. He wouldn’t be a long-term asset for Milwaukee, but if he can re-establish himself as a legitimate threat in the rotation then the Brewers would surely be able to leverage a a nice return in a potential trade.
Of course, the risk is that he doesn’t perform effectively or gets hurt again and becomes a non-tender candidate that cost the Brewers a couple of fringey prospects (in the hypothetical trade scenario I suggested - again we don’t have much to go off of regarding a desired return). Personally, given the potential reward in this scenario, that’s a risk that I think David Stearns should be willing to assume. He should at the very least perform his due diligence by asking Arizona what the price on Shelby Miller would be.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs