DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have stocked up on many of the top pitching prospects in baseball the last several years, and heading into this season, there’s a similar logjam at the MLB level.
Okay, there’s one pretty glaring difference between the two.
In the minor leagues, the Tigers have a group that includes top 50 prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal; first-round picks Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz and Beau Burrows; as well as under-the-radar youngsters Franklin Perez and Elvin Rodriguez.
At the MLB level the Tigers have, to be frank, more quantity than quality.
Sure, Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris are a respectable top three. Boyd has flashed ace potential and Turnbull was one of the talks of spring training in March.
But beyond that, the Tigers were expected to round out the rotation with Jordan Zimmermann and Ivan Nova -- veteran innings eaters but not stars by any means.
The starting rotation is fine, but it’s not loaded. So should the Tigers make room for Michael Fulmer?
Fulmer last took the mound Sept. 15, 2018. Since then, he’s had knee surgery and Tommy John Surgery on top of missing nearly 22 months of action.
He says he’s fully healthy and ready to go, but where does he fit into the 2020 roster?
There are a lot of factors at play here. Not only do the Tigers have five starting pitchers, they also have the aforementioned prospects knocking on the door and ready to come up midway through the 60-game season.
It really boils down to how much the Tigers believe in Fulmer. There’s no question he looked like a budding ace in his rookie season, posting a 3.06 ERA, 3.76 FIP and earning AL Rookie of the Year honors.
His second season wasn’t quite as strong, but Fulmer was still a 3.5 WAR pitcher over 25 starts. That’s extremely valuable.
But despite his high 90s fastball, filthy slider and improving changeup, Fulmer wasn’t really missing bats. He struck out just 7.5 batters per nine innings as a rookie, and that number plummeted to 6.2 per nine in 2017.
His swinging strike rate dropped from 10% in 2016 to 9% in 2017. He bumped it up to 11% in 2018, but he was much less effective overall, posting a 4.52 FIP and elevated walk and home run rates.
There’s no doubt Fulmer has the pure stuff to miss bats, but can he do that while getting back to his rookie year run prevention level? That seems like a stretch.
Detroit would definitely have room in its bullpen if Fulmer takes on a long relief role to ease him back into MLB games. Tyler Alexander figures to be in a similar role, but with four additional roster spots available on Opening Day this year, the bullpen can expand.
Now, with the possibility of a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak within the organization and increased injury risk due to altered and shortened buildup to the season, it’s likely this logjam will work itself out. But if not, where will Fulmer fit in?
While it might not be the most likely outcome, there’s still a chance Fulmer could be a No. 2 starter. It’s entirely possible he will at least be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. What better time than a strange 60-game season to get a preview of what he’s got?
Due to expanded bullpens and a maximum of about 12 outings per starting pitcher, it’s a perfect chance to ease Fulmer back into the mix.
Do the Tigers really need to see another partial season of Zimmermann? Or delay a younger pitcher’s growth to trot Nova out there every fifth day?
Stick Fulmer in the rotation, see what he’s got and go into the offseason with a better idea of where he fits into the loaded prospect mix.