MLB.com’s Jason Beck tweeted that general manager Al Avila “confirmed possibility of Michael Fulmer in bullpen.”
The potential move brings a great deal of intrigue.
With the exception of Daniel Norris, Fulmer may have the highest upside of any pitcher the Tigers employ. The right-handed pitcher touts an arsenal of pitches that include a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. MLB.com ranks Fulmer as the team’s best prospect, citing his “filthy stuff” and a fastball that “consistently hits the mid 90s.”
Despite his obvious ability to pitch, Fulmer only reached Double-A in 2015. The Tigers have rushed a number of young pitchers to the big leagues in the past year. Given Fulmer’s potential, they may not want to replay that scenario with him.
That’s exactly why pitching him out of the bullpen is intriguing. The team would be able to limit Fulmer’s innings and pitch count more effectively than if he were a starter. Additionally, Fulmer would become acclimated to the majors without being tossed into the deep end as a starter.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been using this strategy for years, plugging the team’s top starting pitching prospects into the bullpen before eventually transitioning into a starting role in the next season. It’s worked out brilliantly for the likes of Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn. Martinez posted 14 wins, a 3.01 ERA and a 4.0 WAR in 2015, his first full season in the rotation. Lynn has compiled 60 wins, a 3.38 ERA and an 11.2 WAR since joining the rotation full-time in 2012.
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Detroit used a somewhat similar approach with Drew Smyly in 2013. During that season Smyly operated as one of the team’s setup relievers. In 76 innings he struck out 81 batters and posted a 2.31 FIP.
Fulmer has the potential to be a front-line starting pitcher thanks to excellent stuff and a blazing fastball. However, with rotation upgrades coming, there may not be a spot in the rotation for the team’s top prospect.
If that’s the case, Fulmer could stick in the bullpen for 2016. He would obviously move back into the rotation in 2017, but a season in the bullpen could reduce the wear-and-tear on his arm while helping him adjust to big-league hitters.
Lest we forget, the Tigers’ bullpen is in serious need of reinforcements as well. Should Fulmer be as effective as Smyly, Detroit’s relief corps could receive an unexpected boost.
In any situation, the potential addition of Michael Fulmer to the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen in 2016 is full of intrigue. The Tigers have a chance to bring the team’s prized prospect along slowly while improving a dreadful bullpen.