Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Justin Miller is one year removed from the best summer of his life, and with it, one year wiser to the ways of big league baseball. A revelation in 2015, the hard-throwing righty is now trying to prove he's more than a one-hit wonder as he fights for a spot in the Rockies' crowded bullpen. But, as we've documented previously, he's not exactly the type of guy to worry about that.
"I'm a lot more relaxed this year," Miller admitted to Purple Row from the Rockies' clubhouse in Scottsdale. "Having my meeting with the staff, it all sounds good, just going in and competing for a spot. I feel more comfortable this year knowing everybody too, so it's pretty good."
Talk to the always laid back Miller and it's "pretty good." Talk to his manager Walt Weiss, and it's far beyond that. The Rockies' skipper still marvels over how Miller resurrected his career last summer to climb all the way from Double-A New Britain (with a brand new organization, no less), to throwing key innings in the back end of a big league bullpen.
"Justin made a huge impression last year," Weiss told Purple Row. "He got sent to Double-A out of camp, with big league time, and he never wavered. If anybody was going to be ticked off, he probably was. But he kept his head down, kept his mind right, and ended up being at the back of our bullpen down the stretch there."
"He was a guy we were trying to get the ball to, trying to win games," Weiss added, driving the point home about Miller's importance to the team.
It's an interesting thing to watch Weiss talk about Miller; it's palpable how personally the manager feels and advocates for Miller's success. That pride makes sense, considering how highly Miller has spoken of Weiss in the past, too.
It also makes sense that the Rockies would be strongly backing a pitcher they helped put the finishing development touches on, seeing their results in Miller's consistent work last summer, and now this spring. After all, Weiss isn't the only one who is very clearly happy about the impression Miller made in Denver.
"In spring training, he was probably putting a little more pressure on himself than he needed to because he was trying to make that 25-man, so we didn't get the best version of him," said Chris Forbes, the Rockies' player development manager. "But to have him go to Double-A to get innings, once he got over that hump and was able to relax, he just kept making the adjustments, and he did phenomenally well. Really, I can't say enough."
Double-A did Miller well, as did Triple-A, and a few months of big league action later, here we are, with the righty on an inside track to get a big league job. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, especially for relief pitchers, and with some of the young arms in camp this spring, Miller—who is out of minor league options—could certainly lose a job and be exposed to waivers.
But, as you probably guessed, he's not worried about that.
"With all the new guys we've got in the group now, and young guys competing for a spot, it's a great thing to have," Miller said of the Rockies' combination of quickly-arriving prospects and veteran free agent additions. "It's not a bad thing having those guys, it's really good and I think it's going to better our staff."
Instead of taking it as a threat, then, Miller took the Rockies' bullpen additions—guys like Jake McGee, Chad Qualls, and Jason Motte—the same way he made it a point to develop under John Axford's veteran experience last summer, even paying it forward with other members of the Rockies' staff.
"Having guys like Qualls and McGee, Motte and Boone Logan, they are veteran guys to mix it in with, and then to have [Adam Ottavino] out there too, with him on the bench coming back from Tommy John, he's a walking dictionary," Miller said. "He knows a lot of stuff, he's a very smart guy, and then Qualls, McGee, Boone and Motte, all the success that they have, they are great guys to just sit down in the pen and watch what they do."
In fact, just like Miller took from Axford last summer, he's already busy learning how to go about his business from Motte this spring. Just consider the righty something of a sponge soaking up information.
"They have gone through more situations than I've gone through," he admitted. "Motte has closed, McGee has closed. I've closed in the minors, but it's a totally different animal being in the big leagues to try and close. And then Motte being in the World Series, with his mindset he's like a big kid out there, he doesn't take anything seriously and it plays well for him. I feel like when I'm like that, too, I play better."
"We have something special working in the pen," he added—a sentiment that would seem out of place knowing the difficulties last year's unit faced, if not for a complete revamp over the winter by general manager Jeff Bridich.
But if there really is something special working in the pen this season, Miller is likely to play a large role in that transformation—a role he started forming last summer after Axford helped refine his slider and change the trajectory of his career. It was a long time coming for Miller, and a lot of hard work beginning well before spring training more than a year ago, but that "special" idea ought to include Miller's impact on the Rockies' player development goals.
"He came out early last year, well before big league camp started, so he got a chance to get acclimated to the people, to the process here, the complex," Forbes said about Miller. "He started showing a little bit of who he was quite earlier. So you're not just having to evaluate him when the bell rang, when pitchers and catchers reported."
That helped Miller in the long run, even if he was sent to Double-A nearly a year ago this week. And it's serving him very well now, as the most important people he needs to impress in Scottsdale are already firmly in his corner.
"That's how you handle the adversity and disappointment that is inevitable in this game," Weiss said. "He did it perfectly. He did himself very well last year, and he's throwing the ball well again. We like him a lot."
With all the adversity and disappointment conquered, the "special" bullpen being created, and attention from the highest levels of the Rockies' on-field evaluators and player development executives, you'd think Miller might at least start feeling a little pressure at this point, right?
"When people get all tense, that's when things get out of whack," Miller mused. "You know, I've been playing this game since I was five years old. You go out there and play it like you play as a kid? You're going to do all right."
Yes, you are.