Andrew Miller is all the rage in the playoffs — you know, right after the Cubs and their struggle to win it all. Chosen one spot ahead of Clayton Kershaw in the 2006 MLB Draft, this is not the path he thought his career would take.
Miller was an all-world starting pitcher at the University of North Carolina and was in contention for the 1-1 spot in that draft. Signability concerns caused him to drop to No. 6, which in turn allowed Kershaw to drop to No. 7. He struggled as a starter, was traded for future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera and converted to a reliever in 2012. Since then, he has been one of baseball’s best relievers, and in the last 2-3 years, he has been the best.
Since being traded to Cleveland, manager Terry Francona has been progressive in the way he has deployed Miller. Most notably, he brought Miller in during the fifth inning in the American League Division Series against the Red Sox. For a high-leverage reliever, that was almost unheard of. While that won’t become the norm over the course of a regular season, it could be an effective use of premium relievers in the postseason.
The Dodgers toyed with that by using Kenley Jansen early in a couple playoff games, but he doesn’t strike me as the type who can do that somewhat consistently. If he were paired with another dominant reliever, then maybe, but the fact is, there aren’t a ton of relievers would could be effective in that kind of role throughout the course of a season. And make no mistake, Miller is a special talent and no one is likely to be as good as him in the role.
As such, finding a likely candidate to employ similarly within the Dodgers is an unrealistic task, but it’s interesting to look at potential multi-inning fireman type of arms, nevertheless.
Alex Wood strikes me, initially, as the type who could thrive in such a role, but there are a couple issues with him:
- He lacks elite velocity/swing-and-miss stuff.
- He has a significant platoon split.
His fastball tops out at 92-93 MPH in relief and his knuckle curveball is good not great. Also, right-handed hitters have been more successful against him in his career (though, he was much better in 2016).
To be successful in the role we’re looking for, double-plus velocity and at least a plus off-speed pitch is a must. The pitcher must also have the stamina to get 12 to 18 outs in a given week in high-leverage spots.
As it turns out, the Dodgers may have already traded two guys who fit the bill in Frankie Montas and Jharel Cotton. Montas has elite velocity, while Cotton’s velo is at least plus. Cotton makes up for the lack of velo with a double-plus changeup, while Montas’ slider only flashes plus.
Looking in the farm system, the Dodgers might have a few guys who might be able to fill this kind of role in a handful of years, if such a role is prominent (and I suspect it might be).
RHP Josh Sborz
He lacks consistent double-plus velocity, but he still can touch the mid-90s in relief. Where he makes up for it is with his slider. He has a wipeout slider that should be good enough to neutralize any platoon split, and it hasn’t been an issue thus far in his pro career.
RHP Jordan Sheffield
Sheffield might ultimately end up in the bullpen anyway, and if he does, his mid-90s velo would definitely play up. He also has a slurvy breaking pitch that needs to be refined, but could end up being a nice swing-and-miss offering. Lefties touched him up in an extremely small sample size in his debut (7-for-17, four walks, three strikeouts), so we’ll need to see if he has a severe platoon split going forward.
RHP Yaisel Sierra
Sierra was disappointing early on as his velocity didn’t match the scouting reports, but a late-season move to the bullpen saw a velocity increase and some newfound hope for his signing. The development of his slider will determine if he could handle this type of assignment (and MLB hitters overall). Left-handers hit him well (.336), but most of that damage was done in a starting role. I mostly included him because the Dodgers signed him for $30 million and it’d be nice to get some decent return on this investment.
RHP Brock Stewart
Stewart sits in the low-90s as a starter, so a velo bump wouldn’t be surprising as a full-time extended reliever. He has two quality off-speed pitches in a changeup and slider. He could, conceivably, keep both, which would make him much more interesting. He destroyed lefties in the minors this season (.194 BAA) but didn’t fare as well in 46 MLB plate appearances (.290 BAA). However, he did have a 10:1 K/BB ratio against them (1.36 K/BB against RHP), meaning there’s hope for the platoon split.
RHP Mitchell White
The Dodgers’ 2nd-round pick in 2016, White had a fantastic 22-inning debut. How fantastic? He allowed one unearned in those 22 innings. He did so with a low-90s sinking fastball that could play up in shorter outings. He also has a plus-cut fastball and a curveball that has plus-potential. He allowed just three hits in 38 plate appearances against left-handed hitters, but it’s a small sample size on the platoon split.
Overall, it seems like there are multiple options to fill this kind of role in the future. While a left-handed reliever who can get righties out would be preferred, none of these guys I have identified are lefties. That’s mostly because the Dodgers have a severe dearth of left-handed pitchers in their farm system. If Julio Urias doesn’t work out as a starter, as terrible as that would be, then he catapults to the top of this list.
This type of role may never become the norm anyway, and if it does, it won’t be for at least a few years — you know, about the time some of these younger guys would be ready for such a role. In the immediate future, guys like Sborz, Sierra and Stewart could be perfect in this capacity. Odds are minuscule that any of them will even approach what Miller has become, but in the ever-evolving game of baseball, perhaps these guys would be more valuable than originally expected.