The Miami Marlins are overdue to get some value out of the MLB amateur draft.
Recognizable faces from recent seasons arrived through the process: Giancarlo Stanton (2007), AJ Ramos (2009), Christian Yelich (2010), J.T. Realmuto (2010), Jose Fernandez (2011), etc. But most of that core is gone, while both holdovers could be traded at any moment.
What about the next wave? Brian Anderson, Dillon Peters and JT Riddle are the only Marlins selections from the past five drafts to appear for them in the majors, according to Baseball-Reference. All of them contributed for small portions of the 2017 season. Unless several more of those prospects break through, it’ll be a long wait for fans to see their franchise return to relevance.
Center fielder Brian Miller gives them hope. The University of North Carolina product was their second pick in the 2017 draft at No. 36 overall, following left-hander Trevor Rogers (No. 13). And unlike Rogers, he’s already made his pro debut. Miller batted .322/.384/.416 (134 wRC+) in 57 games with the Single-A Greensboro Grasshoppers. He ranked third on the team in both doubles (17) and stolen bases (21) despite missing the majority of their season.
Talent evaluators were encouraged by that performance. Miller appeared sixth on Baseball America’s list of top Marlins prospects entering the offseason. Newly acquired Magneuris Sierra is the only outfielder in the organization expected to contend with him for positional supremacy when the list updates in the coming weeks.
But Miller had to overcome plenty of adversity just to reach this point.
Before being welcomed to Carolina’s main campus at Chapel Hill, he was committed to UNC Asheville. Then, only a month before his graduation from Millbrook High School, head coach Tom Smith retired. The Tar Heels staff wasn’t in a position to offer him a scholarship on such short notice, but he did join their freshman class as a preferred walk-on.
“It was a huge blessing,” Miller told Fish Stripes in a recent interview.
“I grew up in Raleigh right down the road from Chapel Hill, and I was always a huge fan...posters all over my room, Carolina bedsheets, etc. The whole nine yards, for sure.”
Playing time was sporadic initially, and even when Miller did get on the field in 2015, it was almost entirely as a designated hitter. Not the ideal way to utilize his skill set, but from the beginning, he found creative ways to impact games with his speed.
Here is Miller crossing the plate as the winning run on a wild pitch against VCU, just weeks into his Carolina career:
After only four extra-base hits during his first campaign, Miller racked up 19 as a sophomore and 26 as a junior (including seven home runs). He also earned opportunities to dust off his glove. After spending much of the 2016 regular season at first base, he became a staple in center field.
“Center field is definitely my favorite position and natural position,” Miller says.
But there’s also a selflessness to him, as he already demonstrated at Carolina.
“I don’t have a problem playing anywhere I’m needed to best help the team win.”
Brian Miller’s NCAA Stats, 2015-2017
When asked to name a current major leaguer who influences his game, Miller mentions Los Angeles Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor. The physical resemblance is pretty remarkable: Miller’s listed at 6-1, 186; Taylor at 6-1, 195.
However, there’s something more to be said about how both players use their out-of-the-box acceleration and hustle to avoid routine outs.
From 2015-2017, Miller totaled 738 plate appearances at Carolina and grounded into only five double plays. During that same stretch, Taylor batted 735 times in the big leagues...with exactly five GDPs.
“The past few years, I’ve a heard some Jacoby Ellsbury comps from people,” Miller adds. Whereas Taylor helped put his collegiate experience in context, Ellsbury’s track record comes in handy as we try to decipher his early professional success.
The Oregon State product never actually played a game at the Single-A level. He debuted within the Boston Red Sox organization at Low-A Lowell in 2005, then began the following season at High-A Wilmington. Instead, combining his production from both stints should give us a close approximation of how he would’ve produced if given Miller’s assignment.
So that’s what we did:
Miller’s Single-A stats (age 21): .322/.384/.416, 21 SB in 57 G
Ellsbury’s combined Low-A (age 21) and High-A (age 22) averages: .305/.399/.423, 24 SB in 48 G
Pumping the brakes on the Miller hype train for just a second, Ellsbury’s career path would be one of the best-case scenarios. Although currently seen as expendable on the deep New York Yankees roster, he was briefly among the most valuable players on the planet (MLB-leading 9.4 fWAR in 2011). If not afflicted by several severe injuries, he could’ve been a compelling Baseball Hall of Fame candidate.
What does the 50th-percentile projection look like? If we imagine Miller with average luck and skill development over the next several years, he becomes this generation’s Scott Podsednik.
You can see it, right? Camera angles aren’t perfectly aligned, but look at both of them mid-stride, about to hit run-scoring, ground ball singles:
Podsednik finished runner-up in the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year race (behind Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis), led the majors in stolen bases the following season and served as All-Star leadoff man for the 2005 world-champion Chicago White Sox. He slashed .286/.397/.551 with six steals during their dominant postseason run.
After coming up through the farm system as a center fielder, Podsednik spent the majority of his big league time in left. That’s also a possibility for Miller, depending on whether he builds up enough arm strength to stick in his preferred spot.
Regardless of which accolades he collects in the coming years, Miller is excited to make a career out of playing this crazy game.
“I love waking up every morning knowing I get to play baseball that day.”