Miller's career possibly in jeopardy
Indians pitcher may need surgery on right middle finger
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The career of Adam Miller, one of baseball's most promising pitching prospects, is very much in jeopardy as a result of decreased range of motion and strength in his right middle finger.Miller, who had surgery to seal a porous hole and repair a pulley ligament in the finger last summer, was shut down with pain in the finger on Feb. 27. He began playing catch last week, but soon discovered he no longer had the ability to bend the tip of the finger. After seeing two hand specialists -- Dr. Donald Sheridan of Scottsdale, Ariz., and team specialist Dr. Tom Graham -- on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, Miller was cleared to attempt to throw a 25-pitch bullpen session Wednesday morning. According to head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff, Miller had no pain in the finger and his upper-90s mph velocity was intact. But the command of his pitches was so wayward that the Indians coaches and training staff have reason to question whether he will be able to compensate for his altered anatomy.
"The tragedy is that this is a kid who is ultracompetitive and has great stuff," Soloff said. "This is just an injury that is hard to prevent and also hard to overcome."The right-handed Miller, 24, will continue to throw a bullpen session every other day for the next seven to 10 days. If he is unable to compensate for the inability to bend the finger joint, the Indians will advise him to have surgery to replace two pulley ligaments in the finger with a tendon from his wrist. That complicated procedure would come with no guarantees that Miller would be able to bend the finger or ever pitch effectively again, and it also would come with a nine- to 12-month recovery timetable that would end Miller's 2009 season. The reason Miller only has a week to 10 days to prove himself in a such a manner is that the finger soreness he first felt late last month has initiated a ticking clock, of sorts. The longer Miller waits to have the surgery, the less likely it is to be effective. So on a hastened schedule, Miller must essentially learn how to pitch all over again. "It's such a challenging case," Soloff said, "because there is no history here. There's no precedent for a pitching athlete [to have this problem]." Miller, the Indians' selection with the 31st overall pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, has seen his progression through the Tribe's system compromised by right elbow problems in the past. But it is this fickle finger that has placed him in the precarious state. Miller was not available for comment at the complex. The Indians were idle Wednesday. Entering spring camp, Miller, who owns a 32-25 record and 3.51 ERA in 104 career appearances in the Minor Leagues, was the favorite for the Tribe's open bullpen spot. Once an accomplished starter in the Minors, he was converted to relief work in the Dominican Winter League this offseason after his return from last summer's surgery. The thinking was that while Miller's innings threshold was limited for 2009 because of the four months he missed in '08, he still could impact the Major League club by pitching out of the 'pen. But Miller's spring never really got started. Though he pitched on the back fields and in an intrasquad game on Feb. 24, he never made it into a Cactus League game. His first scheduled appearance on Feb. 27 was scratched because of the finger soreness, and his expedited return-to-throw program now has been compromised. Miller first noticed he couldn't bend the finger while playing catch from about 75 feet last Friday. He threw a ball that sailed way north, and he knew he had a problem. And in his bullpen session on Wednesday, that problem was confirmed by his inability to throw in or anywhere near the strike zone. "You could see [the frustration] in his face," Soloff said. "It's hard to watch. He can't do what he's always done." Soloff said he plans to update the media on Miller's progress on or around March 26. By then, he hopes, the Indians will have a better idea as to whether Miller can get his command in line. "The opinion of [Graham] is either [Miller] can do it or he can't," Soloff said. Miller was not a candidate for the reconstructive surgery last year because of the open blister on his finger. Soloff said the risk of infection would have been much too high to proceed. If Miller has the surgery this spring, it would be performed by Graham. The feel and range of motion of the middle finger are inherently important in a pitcher's delivery, because the tip of the finger is the last thing to touch the ball before its release. "Adam's job requires finite motor control and skill of that long finger," Soloff said. Right now, Miller doesn't have it. And if he doesn't find it soon, his once-promising Major League career may be snuffed out before it begins.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.