Last week, free-agent reliever Shelby Miller signed a one-year deal to join the Detroit Tigers bullpen after an excellent 2022 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. While Miller is now enjoying success as a reliever in today's game, I'll always wonder what could have been if Miller had remained with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Shelby Miller's years as a prospect in the Cardinals' farm system
Miller was drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals in the 2009 MLB Draft out of Brownwood High School (TX). Coming out of high school, Miller had the highest-rated fastball out of high schoolers in the draft and scouts raved about his potential plus-plus curveball. Add in an intriguing changeup and clean mechanics, and many scouts thought he was going to be drafted in the top 10. Miller was the first high school pitcher the Cardinals had taken in the first round since the early 1990s and required a club-record signing bonus to bring to the organization and forego college.
Miller shot through the Cardinals system, rising up to the Triple-A level by his age-21 season and becoming the number five ranked prospect in all of baseball going into 2012. All of the promise he had in high school was coming to life on the field, boasting overpowering stuff that translated to elite strikeout stuff while also being in the mold of a traditional workhorse.
At the end of the 2012 season, Miller made his MLB debut, posting a 1.32 ERA in 13.2 innings of work and even got some run in the postseason for the Cardinals. Miller's quick rise from high school to the Major Leagues set him on the path toward stardom.
Becoming one of the most exciting young starters in baseball
2013 was Miller's first full season in the big leagues. Expectations were high for the Cardinals, and most people will remember how good that team was. There was a lot of pressure on Miller to live up to expectations and he did not disappoint.
In 31 starts, Miller went 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173.1 innings of work. Miller finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was a major part of the Cardinals' run to the World Series that year.
While 2014 was not as dominant for Miller, he was still really good, posting a 3.74 ERA in 183 innings for the Cardinals. His strikeout numbers took a significant dip which was cause for concern, but again, Miller was just 23 years old and just completed his second full big league season on a National League powerhouse.
In October of that year, another up-and-coming Cardinal phenom, outfielder Oscar Taveras, passed away in a tragic accident, and the Cardinals scrambled to find a replacement for the outfielder who was the best position player prospect they had in their system since Albert Pujols.
On November 17th, the Cardinals traded Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves for star outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. Heyward was a year away from free agency and the Braves were in the midst of a rebuild, but he was one of the brightest stars in baseball, so they were able to snag an up-and-coming stater in Miller for him.
While it may seem puzzling looking back on why the Cardinals would trade from their pitching, back in 2014, the Cardinals were in their golden age of pitching development. Alongside Miller, the Cardinals had Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn, who were all extremely promising pitchers in their own rights, along with franchise legend Adam Wainwright. They also. had up-and-coming prospects like Alex Reyes, Marco Gonzales, and Jack Flaherty in the fold.
It was painful to give up a talent like Miller, but at that moment, it felt like a necessary evil in order to strengthen their lineup as they looked to compete with the likes of the Dodgers, Giants, and the up-and-coming Cubs team.
Continued dominance followed by a freak injury
Miller went on to be a part of a terrible Braves team, but that did not impact his performance on the mound. Miller had arguably the best season of his career, posting a 3.02 ERA with 171 strikeouts in 205.1 innings of work, being named to his first All-Star team in spite of leading all of baseball in losses with 17.
Following the 2015 season, the Braves took advantage of his career year and Miller was traded for the second offseason in a row, this time to the Arizona Diamondbacks for number one overall pick Dansby Swanson. This is where things began to unravel for Miller.
In his third start with the Diamondbacks, Miller experienced a freak injury when his finger hit the mound on his follow-through from throwing a pitch. That injury heavily impacted his performance going forward and he experienced various other injuries following that incident.
From 2016-2022, Miller bounced around multiple organizations, trying to reestablish himself as a quality starter in the game, and eventually converting into a reliever to stay in the game.
In 2023, Miller signed with the Dodgers and posted a 1.71 ERA in 42 innings in their bullpen. His comeback story is one that should be celebrated and I'm really glad that Miller was awarded another opportunity in Detroit in 2024.
I'll always wonder what would have been if Miller had remained with the Cardinals. His injury with the Diamondbacks was a freak accident and began the string of events that led to his career unraveling. Had he remained in St. Louis, would Miller have remained on the track to be a top starter in all of baseball?
Miller will be just 33 in 2024, meaning if he hadn't lost his momentum as a difference-making stater and remained a Cardinal, he would have been the homegrown ace they've been craving for years. Sure, Wainwright has been on the team up until this point, but he was in the twilight of his career, and Miller could have been leading the Cardinals' rotation during this era of baseball.
It feels like we were robbed of the next great Cardinal pitcher in the case of Shelby Miller, and as a fan of his, I hope he continues to find success in the latter half of his career.