Yesterday I let myself get a little carried away with how hard Brad Miller is hitting the ball. He's not putting up a cheap spring training line -- his spring has been full of ripped line drives and yesterday's triple nearly went out of the park as well. In the recap, I had visions of Brad Miller as a five win player in the future, which would by my standards, make him a star. He probably doesn't have a super, ridiculous offensive upside, but if his defense remains around average and his speed continues to be an asset, Miller's total package could be quite valuable. Let's break it down.
The most contested issue is Miller's defense. While Miller posted slightly below average metrics last year (-0.2 UZR, -2 DRS over 561 innings at short), the sample size is small and so is Miller's experience. With Miller, it's never been as much about the ability as it has been his tendency to boot routine plays. It's an issue that prospect gurus have theorized would be solved with simple maturity. Even if he does not improve, Miller doesn't appear to be the kind of player who will be a disaster at short.
If Miller's defense does improve, he's likely never going to be a plus defender to any meaningful degree. While Miller is highly athletic and fast, he doesn't make the same kind of plays that the game's elite defenders do, and that's far less likely to progress than his bat.
For the sake of the discussion, let's assume his UZR caps at in the 0 to 5 range, and bottoms at -5 to -10.
This is where Miller's upside starts to shine. It's impossible to not get a little giddy at Miller's power potential at a premium position, but the level to which he can excel is debated. Since this is an article about upside, let's consider his floor to be what he's already done, which is a 103 wRC+. Steamer, Oliver, and the Fans (Fangraphs projections) average his 2014 season to be 110 wRC). ZiPS, for some reason, has Miller at 97. I don't buy it. Personally, I can see a future in which Miller develops into a Jason Kipnis type hitter, even if it's not this year. A line drive machine with moderate home run power in addition to value on the basepaths. Kipnis reached 130 wRC+ in 2013 at age 26.
The year before Kipnis' breakout year, he posted some remarkably similar lines to Miller, especially the batted ball profile.
Miller's 2013 was exactly half the games of Kipnis' 2012. Projecting rate stats the same all year, Miller would have finished with a 3.4 WAR with a baserunning value of 5.2.
Of course, Kipnis got his cup of coffee (36 games) in 2011, and Miller's first taste was in 2013 but for twice as long (76 games). There's of course a chance that Miller doesn't take a step forward like Kipnis didn't in his second year, but Kipnis did eventually bust through, peaking in a 4.5 WAR last year.
But that's as a second baseman. Add in the scarcity upgrade that Miller gets for playing shortstop, and if Miller could replicate Kipnis' last year, he's looking at a 5 win season.
Miller's defense is the ultimate wild card, so it could swing things a ~half win in either direction. I'm not comfortable calling it anything better than average when projecting his upside. Miller, as a rookie, was on pace for a 3.4 WAR season. That would have been the 6th highest total in the majors last year -- higher than Jean Segura and J.J. Hardy. ZiPS has Miller at 3.5 WAR, but that's in 138 games. Oliver, based to 600 PA, has Miller at 3.8 WAR, and that's probably less PA than he receives if he's healthy. The fan projection, bringing him up to 114 wRC+ as previously discussed (.776 OPS), brings it up to 4.1 WAR.
This is in his second season, for projections that assume he's going to miss some games. And while they're all bullish on his defense - all three range from +5 to +9, which seems unlikely -- they all also seem to underestimate his baserunning value, projecting well below his pace for +5 in 2014. Steamer is the highest at 0.8, but ZiPS sits at -0.7. The defense and baserunning values should probably be flipped going forward, but the overall impact to WAR is negligible.
These projections may not be conservative for this year, especially the one from the fans, but if Miller can develop into the kind of hitter Jason Kipnis has become, he has 5 win upside. If the defense somehow manages to become an asset, it could be even greater. Brad Miller is a rare specimen - a left-handed shortstop with power who looks like he can stick at short for a long time even if the defense isn't great, thanks to his bat.
The Mariners very well might have long-term solutions at third base, shortstop, and second base. That's exciting -- almost as exciting as whatever the future holds for Brad Miller, which looks like could be fantastic, even if he doesn't develop into a superstar. If Brad Miller never gets any better than he's already been, he's still going to be a major asset for the Mariners. If he does, look out.