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11/05/08 2:23 PM EST

Miller getting back to form in Dominican

Promising righty could be in Tribe bullpen for 2009 season

CLEVELAND -- Adam Miller had a 6.48 ERA through four starts in the Dominican Winter League.

But that's not a number that concerns the Indians.

Rather, the Tribe is encouraged by another number -- 97. That's the mile-per-hour mark Miller is consistently clocking with his fastball, and he's also shown confidence in his slider.

In all, then, the reports on Miller, who is building up his innings total with the Aguilas Cibaenas after missing much of 2008 following finger surgery, have been positive this fall.

Miller's numbers -- a 1-1 record, the 6.48 ERA, 17 hits and 12 earned runs allowed in 16 2/3 innings -- don't tell the whole story, farm director Ross Atkins said.

"He's the most dominant pitcher they have," said Atkins, checking in from the Dominican. "He's the guy they want to pitch there every fifth day. If you look at their rotation, they'll skip other guys to get to Adam Miller, as long as he has four days' rest."

Miller, who turns 24 later this month, had plenty of rest in 2008. This was supposed to be the year the 31st overall pick from the 2003 First-Year Player Draft impacted the Indians' big league rotation. Indeed, he was well on his way to that point when he strung together a 1.88 ERA in his first six starts at Triple-A Buffalo.

But Miller, who was sidelined throughout the Indians' Spring Training schedule because of a nasty blister on the middle finger of his right throwing hand, saw his season unravel when the blister reappeared in May.

The blister was a byproduct of a 2007 injury in which Miller suffered a pulley strain in the finger. The Indians had hoped he could get by without surgery, but the strain caused his tendon to sag and his skin to rub up against the baseball, causing two calluses and an open hole.

To combat the problem, the Indians had surgery performed to reinforce the pulley system in late May. With that, Miller's season was over. He began a return-to-throw program in August and began pitching in the Indians' Arizona instructional league in September.

The Dominican stint is geared toward building up Miller's innings threshold and transitioning him from starting to relief work. Atkins said Miller will make two or three more starts, depending on how many innings he needs to get through them, before moving to the 'pen. Miller will finish up his winter ball activity around Thanksgiving.

When Spring Training 2009 dawns, Miller will be a full-time reliever. The Indians hope he can remain healthy enough to contribute to their 'pen next season, but their enthusiasm is tempered by his substantive injury history, which includes right elbow troubles in 2005 and 2007.

"If he makes our bullpen, he has the talent, ability and toughness of a guy who, over the season, could factor into the back end," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He's a sinker/strikeout guy with a fastball in the mid-90's, when he's healthy. That guy fits into our bullpen. Is that guy going to be back? I don't know."

For now, Miller, who has struck out 12 batters and walked four in those 16 2/3 innings, appears to be making his way back, if the Dominican reports are any indication.

"Every outing has been a positive one," Atkins said.

One question, aside from the ongoing injury concern, is whether Miller can make a positive transition to relief work, where he'll have to alter the way he attacks hitters.

Atkins said he believes Miller can handle it.

"He's an incredible competitor," Atkins said. "He's a huge baseball student and fan. He really pays attention to the game, even when he's not playing it. He understands the adjustments he has to make, and it's just a matter of applying them. He has a low-maintenance delivery once he gets into his comfort zone."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.