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01/09/09 11:01 PM EST

Miller getting healthy in Caribbean

Indians right-hander working his way back from finger issues

With some prospects, it's hard to put a finger on what's holding back their progress.

For Indians pitcher Adam Miller, however, it's been precisely that part of his body that's caused a major stumbling block for the past year.

The hard-throwing right-hander has had a variety of problems with the middle finger on his pitching hand. It began back in 2007, when he injured the flexor pulley tendon. That, along with an elbow issue, held him to 65 1/3 innings that season.

He seemed OK to start the 2008 season and was throwing well for Triple-A Buffalo with a 1.88 ERA over six starts. Then the finger started acting up. Basically, the injury kept Miller from being able to grip the ball the right way because the finger was flattened out. Not only did that take away from his power and ability to pitch, it caused a callous to form. The callous had caused Miller to miss Spring Training and start the season late with Buffalo.

Between the callouses, something called a fistula formed. It's hole in the skin that could have led to an infection. Dr. Thomas Graham, a hand specialist, determined that without surgery, the hole wouldn't close on its own.

The surgery, performed in late May, knocked Miller out for the remainder of the 2008 season and sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Graham went in and wrapped a tendon from another part of Miller's body around the damaged one to allow it to heal properly and strengthen.

It seems like it's mission accomplished, at least so far. After about an eight-week layoff, Miller began a throwing program that extended into the Indians' instructional league play in Arizona. From there, he went to the Dominican Republic and seemed to have his mind and body working together for the first time in quite a while.

"He's doing great," Indians farm director Ross Atkins said. "He's 100 percent healthy. We saw flashes of 100 percent of his ability in the Dominican. He's as confident and positive as he's been in a while. We have nothing but positive reviews and thoughts projecting toward the 2009 season."

The overall numbers while Miller pitched for the Aguilas in the Dominican look OK -- 3-1, 4.34 ERA, 27 strikeouts and six walks in 29 IP -- but it's his stuff that had the Indians buzzing. Miller was up to 97 mph with his fastball and was routinely throwing 89 mph sliders, commmanding both pitches well.

"This is the first time he's felt 100 percent healthy with his finger [in a while]," Atkins said.

Miller seemed to get stronger in his later outings in the DR, getting more and more comfortable on the mound. He allowed only three earned runs over his final 18 1/3 innings, fanning 19 and walking four in that span. He also began making a move to the bullpen, with his last three outings coming in relief. He finished off his Dominican stint with three frames of perfect relief, picking up a save and striking out five.

That bodes well for the 2009 season, when the plan is to let the big right-hander pitch exclusively out of the bullpen. A career starter, he definitely has the power arsenal to handle short relief work and there was even talk of him getting a crack at the closing job before Cleveland signed Kerry Wood.

"He was transitioned to the 'pen in the Dominican and that's currently the plan," Atkins said, noting that obviously, nothing is etched in stone. "He will not be streched out in Spring Training to start."

What happens down the road remains to be seen. Miller is still only 24 years old and could move back to starting after making it through a healthy season of relieving. There's a slim chance the team could stretch him out during the season and back into that role if there's a real need, but Atkins said that's not usually the way the Indians do things.

"We are as conservative as any team when it comes to that," he noted. "We don't over-expose anyone."

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