Quickly: AAAAce (Four A + Ace) = prospect with big league aspirations and projections that I interview)
During my time as BatBoy (and beyond) with the Texas Rangers AA affiliate, the Frisco RoughRiders, I endured and learned and experienced many things. A lot of good and… you know what, I don’t want to be that guy.
There was Kyle Farnsworth playing on his PSP during an exhibition game and Jemile Weeks giving me advice on being a leadoff hitter and then driving the first pitch into centerfield for a leadoff single, proving to be a man of his word.
One of the best and coolest things was player interaction. Very limited, but here and there you hit it off with a player because he witnessed you get pooped on by a bird in batting practice or he wanted some gum and he wanted it now and you delivered. Few and far between but any chance I got to talk to a professional athlete I was taking it.
Some players were extremely rare in that they would actually initiate a conversation with little ‘ol me.
Justin Miller was one of those players.
Justin Miller (Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports)
Miller was originally drafted in the 47th round by the Colorado Rockies in 2006 out of Bakersfield College but instead chose to play at Fresno State. His Bulldogs went on a Cinderella run as an unseeded team to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2008 College World Series.
This time around he was selected in round 16 by the Texas Rangers. By his third year in pro baseball he was in AA Frisco (like me!) and his stuff was starting to signal big time results for the Rangers, who added him to the 40-man roster.
Unfortunately, soon after he underwent Tommy John surgery Justin lost all of 2012 and rehabbed into 2013. Upon return he was optioned to AA. He struggled to regain his form but showed flashes of a future late innings machine or even closer when his stuff was right.
However, the Rangers outrighted him off the 40-man roster to make room for September call-ups in 2013. Two days later the Detroit Tigers claimed him.
Twenty days later the Detroit Tigers added him to their 40-man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft where he would have been available to any team willing to add him to their own 40-man. The Tigers didn’t want to take that chance.
“Millzy” was nice enough to let me borrow him for a few more minutes in a phone call interview that had me nervous and him tolerating it. Oh yeah, he lets me call him Millzy, too. I think.
The Rangers added you to the 40-man roster after the 2011 season but then you had Tommy John surgery, missed 2012 and 2013 was also a rehabilitation season and were released.
What was that experience like, given that injury had dictated things you couldn’t control?
"I knew being released wasn’t a big concern, I had faith I would be picked up by someone else. I got a call from (the) Detroit Assistant General Manager two days after and signed a minor league deal. Just before the Rule 5 Draft they added me to the 40-man."
As of right now, how healthy do you feel with pitchers reporting to Spring Training in about a month?
"I feel as healthy as I did in 2011."
(9-1 record, 1.81 ERA, 13 saves in 69.2 IP)
In a deep Rangers system, the average fan probably didn’t know who you were when the Tigers not only signed you but used a 40-man roster spot on you.
In an era of baseball that seems to be increasingly focused on prospects, do you pay any attention at all to where you appear in minor league rankings?
"I don’t really focus too much on prospects, I was drafted in the 16th round. To me there are two different types of baseball players. After the draft you ask what happened to him? or where did he come from? I want people to ask where I came from. I just put my head down and work hard."
The Tigers have had very big problems in the late innings and I first-hand saw you dominate when you had your best stuff in AA Frisco, including a 9th inning against the Corpus Christi Hooks where you struck out the side. Given the lack of stability in the Tigers pen in recent years did it mean anything more to get a call from a team who could use just a player like a you?
"It’s a huge a compliment, I’m just going to go out there and be the best pitcher I can be. Like in 2011 for example."
How soon do you think you could contribute at the big league level for them?
"I don’t know when. I’m going to do what I can do and if the cards fit right I can make the team. If not I will still just keep working hard."
Last question, has it at all occurred to you that now in the AL Central you can perhaps take back some of the spotlight from White Sox Gordon Beckham, who seemed to hog it all despite your Fresno State Bulldogs defeating his Georgia Bulldogs as huge underdogs in the 2008 College World Series?
"(laughs) Yeah, it’d be nice to face him again. I remember I threw him one pitch. A curveball, he doubled."