While it's not the very best moment to be a "Milone Man-Crushian," as Tommy Milone has turned in 3 subpar starts in a row, if you look at his full body of work this season I'd argue it's still fair to say he has been what I initially predicted: "a solid #4 with the upside of a solid #3".
I certainly think the first part is fair. 2/3 of the way through his rookie season, Milone has a sub 4.00 ERA (3.91), a 3.6:1 K/BB ratio, and he is on pace to throw 210 IP. To me, those are the trappings of a "solid #4 SP," the likes of whom around the league are, if you're a contender, Ervin Santana, Rick Porcello, and Philip Humber ... or, if you're lucky enough to have a $200M payroll, Phil Hughes.
The question is, does this have to be "as good as it gets," or do pitchers like Milone get to improve upon their rookie season even if they don't have a 90+ MPH fastball to refine? Right now, I see Milone as being a bit "too much Mark Redman and not enough Mark Buehrle" -- hence the clever title to this post. What can Milone do in order to improve upon his rookie season, and become a "solid #3 SP"?
Against RH hitters, Milone mixes in a cutter to go with the Mark Redmanesque "fastball-changeup combo". Against LH hitters, Milone throws a breaking pitch that is probably closer to a curve than it is to a slider, but is often referred to as a "slurvy pitch". So I will officially call that pitch a "soft slurve".
Rather than relying so much on the fastball-changeup combo, I'd like to see Milone throw his breaking pitches more often, so that batters cannot sit on the fastball-changeup combo. Specifically, I'd like to see Milone learn to throw his slurve harder at times -- maybe halfway between the "soft slurve" and the cutter. We'll call that new pitch a "hard slurve".
One beauty of this addition is that it is not a "new pitch" but rather a wrinkle on an existing pitch. Tempting as it is to say "He'll be good if he just adds a _," pitchers can't just add pitches because they feel like it. Milone may not be able to throw a screwball, or a splitter, but likely he can play around with varying the speed on his slurve in order to control bat speed with more than just his fastball-changeup combo.
That adjustment would be Buehrlesque, which is not to be confused with burlesque. I do not want to see Tommy Milone in drag. Ok I do, but that's not really what this post is about. Buehrle "pulls the string" by changing speeds on his breaking pitches, as well as getting hitters "early on the changeup / late on the fastball".
Right now I see batters too able to focus on the fastball-changeup combo, and while Milone's cutter is good enough to use the inside of the plate well to RHs, that arsenal is enough to make him a solid #4 SP. The addition of more breaking pitches which, like his fastball and changeup, also forced batters to worry about being "late on the fast slurve, early on the slow slurve" would not only allow Milone to throw his slurves more often, but would also in turn make his fastball-changeup, and cutter, more effective.
Now you're looking, I believe, at a #3 SP. When you get down on Milone, remember that he is only a rookie. He's still figuring a lot of stuff out. If he can learn to change speeds on his breaking stuff, and mix it in a bit more, I think the A's might have someone who can carry more of a burly (get it?) load in the rotation going forward.