The Athletics' Mason Miller: A sight of relief

The young and talented reliever could be just what the Cubs need, if they can make a solid trade offer.

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Oakland Athletics pitcher Mason Miller throws a baseball

The A’s Mason Miller delivers a pitch to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning at Tropicana Field on May 30 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Julio Aguilar/Getty

OAKLAND, Calif. — Mason Miller has a vivid description of growing up as a Pirates fan.

“The dark years,” recalled Miller, a rookie sensation who has emerged as one of the most dominant closers in the game with a 103-mph fastball in his rookie season with the Athletics.

“There were a couple good years in there. But there were about 18 losing seasons in the heart of my childhood.”

One of those “good years” was ended by the Cubs, who eliminated the Pirates in an ultra-tense 2015 National League wild-card game. And the Cubs were the opponent in Miller’s major-league debut 14 months ago.

Because the Athletics are in the midst of their third consecutive rebuilding season while wondering if Sacramento will be a pit stop before their preferred permanent move to Las Vegas in 2028, Miller already is being evaluated as a trade possibility by other teams, according to multiple reports.

The Cubs, who have struggled with dependable late-inning relief through the first two months, have a reservoir of high-end prospect talent (especially in the outfield) to satisfy the A’s. Their in-house options were damaged when top pitching prospect Cade Horton suffered a sub-scapular strain and likely won’t be at full strength until around the All-Star Break.

Miller would fortify the back end of a Cubs bullpen that lost closer Adbert Alzolay to a forearm injury after five blown saves in nine chances and opted for split-finger fastball mavens Hector Neris and Mark Leiter Jr.

Lots of choices ahead

The Orioles. Dodgers and Padres, like the Cubs, are faced with an array of bullpen issues in their quest to advance deep into the playoffs but have a reservoir of prospects that could entice the Athletics.

Urgency among more teams that may need to part with their best prospects to reach the playoffs will lead to more options for an A’s franchise that has dealt the likes of Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman Sean Murphy and Frankie Montas less than a year after an 86-win season in 2021.

Miller isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2026, and he’s not eligible for free agency until 2030. There might not be a better time for the Athletics to trade Miller and get maximum value because of his low service time and his mound dominance.

If Miller is wondering about his future, he’s not tipping his hand.

“Like we said about the draft,” said Miller, 25, a third-round pick in the 2021 draft as a fifth-year senior from Garner-Webb University in North Carolina. “You can’t control it.

“It’s nice that people are taking notice of that type of impact I’m making. But until that changes, my job is to compete and help us win here.”

What’s on offer

The A’s have been careful in their use of Miller, which carries greater significance because of his history of arm problems and because setup reliever Lucas Erceg hasn’t pitched since May 25 because of a forearm injury and Michael Kelly was issued a one-year gambling suspension on June 3.

Manager Mark Kotsay called on Miller to earn a multi-inning save against Seattle on June 4 — on four days’ rest — the first time Erceg and Kelly weren’t available in a game.

Kotsay has said he would continue to employ Miller for a one inning-plus save opportunity if he had multiple days of rest.

This is the latest in a series of moves to preserve Miller’s health. He was limited to six starts in 2023 because of a strained right rotator cuff, and the A’s made him a full-time reliever for 2024 after he missed four months due to tightness in his right forearm.

And after his sophomore year at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania, Miller was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and continues to be monitored closely.

If there’s one asset that stands out among interested teams, it’s Miller’s ability to concentrate on specific tasks without being overwhelmed by his quick ascent, his medical history and his well-earned notoriety as one of the best closers in the game with a reasonable chance to represent his organization in the All-Star Game.

“Just keep your eyes forward,” Miller said. “Every day is a new day. It doesn’t matter what you did the day before. So just keep that mindset and keep working on it.”

Miller has displayed an ability to remain effective and poised despite his ailments, making only nine minor-league appearances before earning his major-league debut and not pouting when the A’s elected to make him a full-time reliever this season.

“I think every pitcher would love to start,” Miller said. “But taking to the role the way I have, I think there’s some security in that.”

Hot out of the gate

Miller made his major-league debut against the Cubs on April 19, 2023, despite making only one start at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he struck out 11 while walking none in five no-hit innings against Salt Lake.

“Honestly, I didn’t have much of a reaction because I was so shocked,” Miller said of his sudden promotion despite only two minor-league starts. “It didn’t feel real.”

Nevertheless, Miller was “proud” of his effort, as his fastball topped out at 102.5 mph according to Statcast, and he struck out five in 4„ innings before leaving with a no-decision. Miller struck out Cody Bellinger and Patrick Wisdom two times apiece, and 12 of his 51 pitches were called strikes.

“I thought I was throwing the ball great,” said Miller, whose cut fastball averaged 95.1 mph. “I felt good about my stuff.”

This season, Miller ranks in the 100th percentile in strikeouts, whiff and chase rate, expected slugging percentage and fastball velocity (100.9), according to Baseball Savant.

In April, Miller proved he was ready for the big stage, striking out the side to earn a save at Yankee Stadium and returning three days later to earn a 1„-inning save, striking out Juan Soto on a 101.9 fastball and retiring Aaron Judge on a flyout to preserve a 3-1 win.

Any team who acquires Miller might be wise to leave him alone and not try to fix any perceived flaw (see Jose Quintana with the Cubs).

“We’re probably not as hands-on or as analytical as some organizations are,” Miller said. “But there’s something to be said for letting a guy develop at his rate and give him a couple things to work on and let him do what he thinks is necessary.”

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