PEORIA, Ariz. — Brad Miller arrived for camp knowing he’d be under a microscope and, sure enough, there’s been much talk — but little (so far) regarding his battle with Chris Taylor for duty as the Mariners’ shortstop.
Much of the early focus, instead, centers on Miller’s new longer hairstyle.
“I wasn’t anticipating that,” he laughed. “It’s very polarizing. There’s no in-between. It’s either no or yes. I just decided to grow it out, and I’m going to go with it.”
For how long?
“I’m not going to commit to anything,” he said, laughing again. “I’m just not. I’ve been asked that a lot. I really like it, though. So I’m going to go with it…but you never know.”
Attention on the Miller/Taylor competition should heat up this week once the Mariners open their Cactus League schedule Wednesday against complex co-tenant San Diego at renovated Peoria Stadium.
Manager Lloyd McClendon set the parameters last week by saying, “If we don’t have injuries, I doubt if we can take them both” when the Mariners break camp for the April 6 opener against Angels at Safeco Field.
Miller faced a similar battle a year ago after the arrival of Robinson Cano forced Nick Franklin off second base. At the time, Miller was much like Taylor is now: someone with just a few months of big-league experience.
“I think getting to go through it last year,” Miller said, “it really is the same mind-set if I have a job or not. You’re in here, and you’re scratching and clawing. My biggest thing is I want to be the guy.”
Miller swamped Franklin a year ago by producing a a scorching spring, which included a .410 average in 21 games. But he subsequently opened the door for Taylor by struggling through the season’s early months.
It wasn’t until late August that Miller climbed past the .200 Mendoza Line for good.
“The first month-and-a-half,” he said, “there were just some things I wasn’t able to do. For me, there were fastballs right down the middle and away, and I wasn’t covering.”
Miller’s poor start largely obscured a solid finish. He posted a .268/.330/.464 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) after the All-Star break.
Those second-half numbers, as a point of comparison, closely mirrored teammate Kyle Seager’s season-long totals: .268/.334/.454.
“I had to get better,” Miller said, “and that’s what I did. But, no question, when you put yourself in that hole, no matter how well you finish — and I felt I finished pretty strong the last three or four months — it doesn’t matter.
“And I get it.”
Miller’s struggles created an opportunity for Taylor, who arrived July 24 after posting a .328/.397/.497 slash in 75 games at Triple-A Tacoma. And Taylor held his own in 47 big-league games: .287/.347/.346.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “It was only for two months, but I know what to expect. I competed at the highest level. That’s a good feeling to have. Not only that. We were in the middle of playoff hunt.
“It really doesn’t get much bigger than that.”
Taylor aimed his off-season regimen at arriving for camp in top form. (And no, no change in hairstyle.) He knew his spring performance could spell the difference between the majors and Tacoma.
“I used this off-season as my spring training,” he said. “I had to be in (regular-)season form when I got here. Obviously, that’s tough to do without seeing live pitching. That’s going to be the biggest adjustment.”
The consensus view, which McClendon repeated recently, frames Taylor as the better fielder, but credits Miller as offering more pop at the plate.
It’s not surprising, then, that Taylor is tweaking his swing in an effort “to get a little more juice in the bat.” His .463 slugging percentage in 258 minor-league games points to his potential.
Concerns over Miller’s defense, along with possessing a viable alternative in Taylor, prompted club officials to ponder a possible position change — perhaps to the outfield or even to a utility role at all four infield spots.
There were also numerous trade rumors, too, particularly around the time of the Winter Meetings in early December. Miller heard it all; he admits he’s always tracked the Hot Stove as a fan.
“I like the following the sport,” he said, “because with my dad, I’ve grown up just talking about baseball at home. It’s one of those things, I guess, when you’re part of it, you have to scale back a little bit.
“You can really wear yourself out about it. If you looked (at what was being said on) Oct. 15, then you looked again on Jan. 15, it pretty much went full circle.”
The Mariners’ off-season acquisitions effectively ended speculation of a position change which, Miller said, always left him puzzled.
“I view myself as a shortstop,” he said. “It’s just funny. People say I’m not a major-league shortstop. Well, I’ve played shortstop in the major leagues, and I’ve played it pretty well, actually, I believe.
“You always have to keep proving it but, at times, you look back at everything, and think, shoot…all of the qualities that people say: `He’s athletic; he’s got a good arm; he’s got this; he’s got that…’
“I think, well, those are pretty good qualities for a shortstop.”
The hair? That’s just extra.