With both southpaw relievers Franklin Morales (bulging disc in lower back) and Craig Breslow (shoulder) sidelined to start this regular season, left-hander Andrew Miller will be as important as anyone in the Red Sox bullpen early on.
Miller, 27, is coming off a career year. He posted a 3.35 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 53 relief appearances and 40.1 innings in 2012. He held left-handed batters to a .149 batting average and .245 OBP.
“It was a step in the right direction for me — a big step,” Miller said. “And I felt really good about it. I didn’t finish as strong as I would have liked to. There’s things I can look back on and improve on. I feel like I’ve evaluated that and I know what I want to do.”
Miller, who was the sixth overall pick by Detroit in the 2006 draft, struggled with his control until last year. Even with his strong 2012, he has a career 1.69 WHIP and 5.54 ERA. He has given up 10.0 hits per nine innings in his career, but that number dropped drastically to 6.2 last year.
Miller did surrender 13 of his 20 walks in ‘12 during the final two months.
“I walked a few guys at the end of the year that I shouldn’t have and they tended to come back to bite me,” Miller said. “That’s a big thing. And then I really want to do better against righties.”
Righties batted .263 with a .373 on-base percentage vs. Miller a season ago. He faced 67 right-handed hitters and walked 10 and struck out 18. He faced 102 left-handed batters, walking 10 and striking out 33.
“I just kind of lost my approach on getting righties out (as last year progressed), and I think I know how I want to approach that this year. I’m ready to fix that,” said Miller, a Gainesville, Fla., native who was the Baseball America National Player of the Year at the University of North Carolina.
Miller found his niche when moved to the bullpen fulltime last year. Before last year, 66 of his 96 appearances had been starts.
In his first 7.1 innings this spring training, Miller has allowed two runs (2.45 ERA), has a 0.82 WHIP, a .167 batting average against and has struck out 12 with two walks.
“I really do want to build on last year,” he said. “It was a good start but I think it can be better.”
Meanwhile, Miller, like many, feels the bullpen is a strength for the Red Sox.
Boston added closer Joel Hanrahan and setup man Koji Uehara this offseason.
Hanrahan saved 76 games the past two seasons with the Pirates and made the NL All-Star team both years. Uehara has a 2.36 career ERA in 145 relief appearances (145.0 innings).
“I think we certainly showed at times (last year) what we’re capable of and how good we can be,” Miller said. “I think the new additions only make us stronger and better. We don’t want to be on the preseason top five bullpens. We want to be on it at the end of the year. I think we have the pieces, the arms and the people to do it.”
With the unpredictability of middle relievers and setup men, putting together a bullpen can be a crapshoot.
But the Red Sox have put together a pen of some veterans who have been doing their jobs consistently for years.
Breslow has been in the league for seven years and boasts a 3.00 ERA and has been effective against righties (.224 batting average) and lefties (.226).
Uehara has been going strong since his rookie season in 2009 and also is stingy against both righties (.206) and lefties (.216).
Then there is 26-year-old Junichi Tazawa, who has a lively arm and turned heads last year when he posted a 1.43 ERA in 44.0 relief innings for Boston.
And don’t forget about Andrew Bailey, who spent most of last year on the DL. Bailey is a two-time All-Star closer who has a career 2.47 ERA and is being asked to set up.
“We know what he’s capable of,” Miller said about Bailey. “He obviously missed a lot of time last year. We need him healthy. Everyone was something before they were a closer. So he certainly knows how to pitch. He can pitch in any situation. ... I think he’ll react more than fine with it.”
Miller said Bailey is a huge competitor.
“Guys like Breslow had played with him in the past and they all spoke so highly of him and the type of player he is,” Miller said. “He gives you a boatload of adrenaline — fired up, ready to go. So I think you can pitch him in any situation and he’ll be ready to go.”