By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Zach Miner is 32 years old, now nearly three years removed from Tommy John surgery, and relishing the opportunity, in his 14th professional season, to have a clear goal to pursue in spring training.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a camp before,” he said, “where I knew I was just going to start or relieve. Here, the Mariners have been up front and honest with me. They want me to relieve.
“They said they know I can do both, but it’s been kind of nice to know I just have the one role. I know, at some point, I’m probably going to get stretched out a little to throw multiple innings.
“It’s nice to know exactly what’s expected of me.”
The Mariners see Miner as a long-relief candidate who offers the flexibility of pitching in short roles because of an arsenal that includes one of the game’s great escape weapons: a sinking fastball.
“I don’t consider him a starter,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “and I never have considered him a starter. He’s a bullpen guy. He did some swing work for us in Detroit, but we considered him a reliever there as well.”
McClendon was a coach in Detroit when Miner went 25-20 in 157 appearances, including 35 starts, over four years before his elbow blew out prior to the 2010 season.
Miner underwent Tommy John surgery that June and spent the next couple of seasons on the comeback road. He tried to return in 2011 with Kansas City but now agrees he just wasn’t ready.
“In KC,” he said, “I probably pitched that first year too early. I struggled badly at the start when I came back. That’s one of the gambles you take. You feel good, and you want to get out there.
“And if they have a need, they want you to get out there. And if you don’t do well … everyone says it takes two years. That’s kind of how it was for me.”
It wasn’t until last year, when he spent most of the season at Class AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia chain, that Miner felt he was back to where he needed to be.
His Aug. 3 appearance for the Phillies against Atlanta marked his first big-league outing since Oct. 6, 2009. And while his numbers didn’t jump in 16 games for the Phillies (14 runs in 282/3 innings), the Mariners saw a fit.
“You’ve got to have a long man,” McClendon said. “I think it’s important, particularly with some of the young pitchers we have, that you have a durable guy who can go two or three innings.”
And to be blunt, that guy has to willingly accept what might be the least glamorous and most-abused job on a big-league roster.
Long relief often means mop-up duty. It can mean taking a shelling in a lost cause to save others from working those innings. It often involves long stretches of little work, which makes it difficult to stay sharp.
For these reasons, and others, clubs generally prefer not to assign the role to possible rotation candidates, particularly prospects. Those pitchers generally go to Triple-A for their own protection and the club’s future use.
So, when Miner says the Mariners have been clear in what they want…well, that’s what they want. And that’s OK at this stage of his career.
“It’s nice to have somebody on your staff,” he said, “who you know can be stretched out. There’s going to be a point where somebody goes down or there’s a doubleheader or a game goes 14…something is going to happen.”
Miner believes he can handle any and all of it because there’s nothing he hasn’t done in the past.
“I’ve been tapped on the shoulder an hour before a game,” he said, “and told I was starting. It was in Boston. I threw the seventh and eighth (innings) in the first game. Got up the second day. And the third game, I started.
“The thing that’s good about me, I think, as opposed to someone else who is just a long reliever, is that throughout my career, I’ve been able to throw in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. And also throw the second.”
Miner has, generally, pitched well in his six spring appearances: just four hits and no walks in 71/3 innings along with nine strikeouts. Few hard-hit balls.
“I think he’s maybe a little firmer (with his fastball) than he was in Detroit,” McClendon said. “He seems to be healthy. He’s throwing the ball extremely well. He’s got a nice mix.”
Even so, Miner knows the odds. He’s in camp as a non-roster invite on a minor-league contract. The Mariners currently have no openings on their 40-man roster but will likely need to find a couple for other players.
Will they be willing to jettison someone else to add a long reliever?
“From what they say,” Minor said, “there’s a lot of opportunity. But players can count. There are certain guys who definitely deserve to be here from what they did last year.
“All you can really do is put yourself in the discussion. If they don’t pick you, it sucks. We’ll see what happens.”