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Rays 2017 Season Preview: Brad Miller, mashing second baseman

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Miller, before Tampa Bay

Brad Miller had a long road to becoming a 30 home run masher without a defensive home.

At Clemson, and for most of his prospecthood, Miller profiled as a solid defensive shortstop with enough contact and plate discipline to be a very good all-around everyday player. As he moved up the Mariners’ system, he posted double-digit walk rates. The lowest batting average he produced was .294 while his high strikeout rate was 17% in AA.

He whizzed through the Mariners system and got to the majors in 2013. Miller and another new kid, Nick Franklin, combined to become a contact based, productive but ultimately underwhelming double play combo. For the next two seasons, Miller didn’t show the contact based approach he had in the minors and college, succumbing to strikeout issues.

In 2015, his final year with the Mariners, Miller had his best overall offensive season to date, slashing .258/.329/.402. But defensive issues and the rise of shortstop prospect Ketel Marte forced Miller around the diamond, where the Mariners realized he doesn’t have much of a role with the team.

That’s when the Rays entered the situation.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays dealt for the Mariners infielder after the 2015 season, giving up solid back-end arm Nate Karns, journeyman reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, and prospect Boog Powell. While the pitchers wouldn’t last in Seattle, the return on the trade for the Rays has been a huge plus in their newly found masher. More on that in a moment.

Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar also came along in the trade and all three project to make the Rays opening day roster.

Brad Miller’s 2016

Miller’s prospect promise finally came to fruition in 2016, but in a totally different way than previously thought. The former all-around shortstop changed his approach and follow through completely, turning into a pull hitter with a huge leg kick. From 2015 to 2016, Miller saw fairly big changes to his batted ball profile.

Untitled spreadsheet - Sheet1.csv

Year LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Pull% Cen% Oppo%
Year LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Pull% Cen% Oppo%
2015 20.2% 48.4% 31.4% 10.3% 32.9% 35.4% 31.7%
2016 18.5% 44.8% 36.8% 20.4% 42.5% 32.8% 24.6%

With more hard hit pull fly balls, Miller saw his home run total elevate from 11 to 30. His sharp uptick in power was well timed, as he was unable to instill the confidence the Rays needed at shortstop, even though the added power to his bat dictated he remain an everyday player. After an injury to Morrison, he slotted over to first base.

It wasn’t all good for the breakout player. His strikeouts went up from 20.3% to 24.8%, along with a lower walk rate and average than he had put up the prior two seasons. All in all, Miller has progressed the past couple seasons to effectively turn himself into a reliable, everyday player. Now with his new found power, Miller profiles better as a capable 1B type, but with the chops to still play the rest of the infield as needed.

Brad Miller Going Forward

Expecting Miller to improve could be a lot to ask for, but the Rays are relying on him to show his up the middle defense is still available. A move to 2B could do Miller some good. Batted ball data has advanced to the place where middle infielders may not need great range to be effective, and defensive positioning should take pressure off Miller's lack of lateral quickness that was missing at short.

At the plate, sustaining his near double HR/FB rate will be a steep task, as well as sustaining a .239 ISO that put Miller in company with hitters such as Todd Frazier and Carlos Santana power wise.

As for the projections, Miller isn't really a regression candidate. He's established himself as a solid everyday contributor high in the batting order, but a somewhat evening out of his low on-base and high power could be in order, making Miller a somewhat more well-rounded hitter. Overall, here are the projections for Miller from Fangraphs.

Brad Miller 2017 Projections -

Projection Model AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K% ISO WAR
Projection Model AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K% ISO WAR
Depth Charts .249 .317 .437 105 8.7% 22.9% .188 2.2
Steamer .251 .320 .434 105 8.8% 22.7% .183 2.2
ZiPS .248 .313 .440 104 8.6% 23.0% .192 1.4

Personally, I anticipate similar production to ZiPS, mostly because of the power over contact approach. The Miller trade has worked out very well for the Rays, and Miller should continue to be a valuable piece to the Rays until prospects dictate he must be moved in a trade. Miller is under team control through the 2019 season.