BOSTON -- Of all the Red Sox players who could be traded by the July trading deadline, who might be the most coveted by contending teams?
We’ll give you a hint: He was saddled with four walk-off losses in the span of 11 days in May.
Some pitchers might have been undone by such cruel and unusual punishment. Red Sox reliever Andrew Miller has rebounded to have the best season of his career, his eye-popping numbers overlooked only because closer Koji Uehera has turned last call into sublime Kabuki theater.
But while the left-handed setup man may receive only intermittent attention in the media, opposing teams have Miller on the top of their lists of potential acquisitions.
First, the numbers: In 41 appearances, Miller has a 2.34 ERA, is averaging 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and just 2.6 walks per nine, all career bests. He has 57 strikeouts and 10 walks in 34 2/3 innings, and has allowed just one home run all season, the one by Chris Parmelee of the Twins on May 14 in Minnesota’s Target Field that accounted for one of those walkoff losses.
Opposing hitters are batting a career-low .183 vs. Miller, and the 6-foot-7 lefty’s success is coming at the expense of both right-handed hitters (.197) and left-handed hitters (.160).
Since May 24 in Tropicana Field, when Miller’s own throwing error led to the fourth of those walkoff losses, Miller has made 17 appearances, including an eighth-inning stint Tuesday night in which he gave up a leadoff double to White Sox strongman Jose Abreu, then set down the side in order, striking out two.
In that stretch, he has allowed just two earned runs in 12 2/3 innings, striking out 24 and walking just 3 in in 12 2/3 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .163 against him.
Miller has a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and a devastating swing-and-miss slider in which he gets nearly 25 percent of his swings and misses. Opposing hitters are batting just .136 (8 for 59) against the slider, with only two extra-base hits.
At 29, Miller has conquered the control and command issues that caused both the Tigers, the team that drafted him in the first round, and the Marlins, the team that traded him to the Red Sox, to give up on him.
And Boston is paying him just $1.9 million this season, another reason why teams are lining up to talk to Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. He is owed roughly $630,000 for the last two months of the season.
This week, the Atlanta Braves have had a scout in town, and while they have not revealed the purpose of their visit, the Braves are known to be seeking relief help, and a league source said that Miller is their prime target.
So why would the Red Sox even think of trading him, given he is still young and cheap? Because he is a free agent after the season, and the Red Sox could move him now for value to a team willing to take him as a two-month rental, then attempt to re-sign him this winter as a free agent.
There’s a risk in that scenario, of course: Miller could decide he wants to stay with the team that trades for him, or test the free-agent market and elect a destination other than Boston. He would seem to have little incentive to sign an extension with the Sox at this time, should they offer him one -- left-handed relievers with his pedigree are a rare commodity on the open market, and this close to free agency he knows he will be in demand.
Miller has said he loves Boston, and since it's the place where he was able to turn around his career, he may have even more incentive to return. But given how he could be a difference-maker down the stretch, look for teams to push hard for the Sox to make a deal.