JUPITER, Fla. — Brad Miller has been around the block.
The newest Cardinal got his start in MLB with the Mariners, playing in Seattle from 2013 to 2015. In the time since, St. Louis marks the seventh organization with which Miller has spent time.
You’d think he’d have found a more permanent home in Tampa Bay after his eye-opening 30 home run campaign in 2016 that immediately followed the trade that sent him there the off-season prior. 30 home run-type power is perhaps more common in the game than it once was, but that doesn’t mean it grows on trees.
At age 26, Miller had busted out for the most complete season of his fledgling MLB career. There was ample reason to expect more goods things were on the horizon for Miller.
Then, as it too often does to promising athletes, health happened.
The transaction log on Miller’s player page is littered with stints on the disabled list (now known in MLB as the injured list). 2017 included two trips to the DL as Miller battled a core issue; Miller still logged 407 plate appearances that year, but the ailments impacted his performance.
Gritting through the injuries, Miller was Steve Rogers before the super soldier serum; the desire was there, but his strength and power at the plate was sapped. Miller batted just .201 and saw his OPS slide to .664, a far cry from the sturdy .786-mark he posted in his 30 home run 2016 season. To address the problems, Miller underwent bilateral core surgery after the season—but that wasn’t the end of his troubles.
Miller had also been playing with a torn labrum in his right hip; eventually, it would need to be addressed surgically, too. The next year, that opportunity arrived as a result of the end of another; after a mid-season trade sent him from Tampa to Milwaukee, Miller was designated for assignment by the Brewers in August 2018 after the team acquired Mike Moustakas for the stretch run. The timing of the August release from Milwaukee, for better or worse, gave Miller a good window to have the surgery and then come back ready to play in spring 2019.
First, he needed a job.
Miller said Thursday the Cardinals had reached out with interest in signing him as a free agent last off-season, but a deal with St. Louis never materialized. After seeing what Miller would accomplish during the 2019 season, the Cardinals probably wish they had a mulligan on that decision.
So, too, might the Dodgers.
Los Angeles signed Miller as a non-roster invitee a couple weeks after spring training began, but didn’t have a MLB roster spot for him when camp wrapped. Miller had a nice spring for the Dodgers, going 10 for 26 (.385), but the strength of the roster squeezed him out of a spot. Miller opted for his release rather than accepting an outright assignment to the minors.
Miller said Thursday he seized the opportunity with the loaded Dodgers, despite the potential he wouldn't crack the roster, because of the chance to play meaningful games in September and October.
“That was my thinking last year,” Miller said Thursday. “I wanted to go to an organization where if you perform, they’ll give you the opportunity. If teams are trying to win, I think that’s generally how it works. They want to put the best team on the field.”
If that last line from Miller sounds familiar, it should. It’s reminiscent of a gripe levied by Miller toward his second team from 2019, the Cleveland Indians, following their decision to designate him for assignment last April just three weeks after his signing there.
Miller made headlines for his blunt response to the move.
"They acknowledge that it wasn't fair," Miller told ESPN.com regarding his DFA at the time. "But I'm just a player. I go out there and play my hardest and play for the guys next to me. Obviously, they don't want the best guys up here. So I'm just trying to take it somewhere else and see what we've got."
The Yankees scooped Miller up days later on a minor-league contract, where the increasingly versatile defender promptly got back to his roots as a slugger. Miller slashed .294/.399/.596 in 163 plate appearances in Triple-A for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRoaders before the Phillies acquired him for cash, becoming the first sensible organization to employ Miller during the 2019 season.
Why? They called him up and played him.
Though Miller had one brief stint on the injured list in late-July—perhaps he was just waiting out the trade deadline as he played for his fourth team of the year—he rewarded the Phillies’ belief in him with 13 home runs and a .263/.331/.610 batting line in 170 plate appearances.
Prorate those numbers to a full season of opportunity and Brad Miller would have received MVP votes. Now, he’s a Cardinal looking to contribute to something special, something that carries more meaning to him than the intricacies of the role he might play for his newest team. And it’s not hard to understand why.
Three of the four organizations for which he played in 2019 reached the postseason; all but Philadelphia, which is, yuh know, where he was when the playoffs actually took place.
Brad Miller just wants to make the playoffs.
“I love competition. I love being part of a winning team. I haven’t been in the playoffs and I want to experience that,” Miller said upon joining the Cardinals. “I want to be on a team that has aspirations to win it all.”
Whatever form his role takes isn’t really an issue for Miller.
“I’m ambitious, just like any player,” Miller said. “We want to play everyday. I don’t care who’s pitching, I want to be out there. That’s just how I think you want the attitude of all your players. But whatever role that I’m given, I’m going to dominate that. With Philly last year, when I first got over there, I was coming off the bench and I embraced it. Then I earned myself some more playing time and I embraced that. I think that’s what being a professional is all about.”
Miller came up from the minors as a shortstop, which remained his primary position through his early years in the big leagues. But defensive metrics never graded Miller’s fielding at shortstop fondly; the number defining his defensive runs saved frequently had had a minus-sign attached to the front of it. The expansion of his horizons defensively ramped up in 2015, when Miller saw 253 innings in the outfield.
It wasn’t a position with which Miller had much prior familiarity. He said Thursday that he learned how to play the outfield on the fly after arriving in the majors.
“Andy Van Slyke, former Cardinal,” Miller said. “He hit me a million fungoes.”
Miller has built up defensive experience at first, second and third base, too, noting he feels comfortable anywhere the Cardinals might put him. As long as Mike Shildt is writing his name into the lineup on a regular basis, the spot he’s asked to stand in the field won’t phase Miller. And if he hits like he did for the Phillies last year, the Cardinals manager will have to find room for him.
Wait, is this a Tommy Edman story?
That’s kind of the point, though. Some fans see the Miller signing and wonder, did the Cardinals really need another infielder? Well, if the guy posts an OPS of .894, as Miller did in total last season, he can play wherever he wants. Edman proved that in 2019. Miller's .894 OPS would have led the Cardinals a year ago, even above last year’s super-utility standout (Edman’s OPS was .850).
“The reality of it is, the lineup, a lot of the time, is based on offensive production,” Miller said. “If you're hot, they’re going to run you out there.”
Miller was hot in 2019. So was Edman. Few other Cardinals could say the same. One who caught fire periodically, Marcell Ozuna, now plays for Atlanta. So the Cardinals need as many potentially capable options as they can get their hands on. Not to mention, Miller bats left-handed. Check that off the Cardinals wish list.
Whether Miller can continue his momentum from a year ago remains to be seen. If he can, the reported $2 million salary the Cardinals are paying him for 2020 will be a pittance. If he can’t, it’s probably because his physical health trips him up once again.
But Miller doesn’t sound like someone still wearing the strain of those lost seasons. If fans want to hold off before rushing out to purchase his No. 15 Cardinals jersey, he’d probably understand. If the Cardinals get a healthy Brad Miller this season, though, he feels like the kind of player that can make an impact on a winning club.
“After a couple rough years of injuries, I feel like I’m put back together,” Miller said. “My legs are back under me and I feel like I can be a better contributor offensively and defensively, on the bases. I feel like I’m healthy. I think 2016, when I was able to start doing some more damage, that’s closer to who I am. And at the end of last year, that’s the player I think I can be and have shown a little bit.”