Detroit Tigers: The Semi-Forgotten Michael Fulmer

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 15: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning at Progressive Field on September 15, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Tigers 15-0. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 15: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning at Progressive Field on September 15, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Tigers 15-0. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images) /

It might seem harsh to call Detroit Tigers’ righty Michael Fulmer “semi-forgotten”. The announcement of him needing Tommy John Surgery was only in the Spring of 2019. Not that long ago…

After all, he was once considered a prime trade deadline acquisition from the Mets when the Tigers shopped All-Star Yoenis Cespedes in 2015. Fulmer went into party-crasher mode winning Rookie of the Year in 2016. Michael Fulmer was going to be Justin Verlander’s wingman fronting the Tigers rotation for seasons to come by the look of most evidence.

However, times have changed since Fulmer’s rookie campaign of 2016. That year would mark the Tigers’ final gasp at contention for a while. Verlander would be gone along with several others in 2017 in a purge.

Fulmer himself would follow up his promising rookie campaign with a huge first-half effort leading to an All-Star Game appearance. Even with the team limping along and appearing headed to a rebuild, it seemed as though Fulmer would either be a big piece (the “Fulm Piece”? Nevermind…long and weird story) to build around or a very valuable asset to market in trade for more talent.

Then August 3rd of ‘17 rolled around. It was suddenly announced Fulmer was heading to the disabled list. “Ulnar Neuritis” in his pitching arm. Fulmer would return and pitch poorly down the stretch. Word would come out that he’d need “ulnar nerve transposition surgery”. Storm clouds were gathering.

2018 for Fulmer can be summed up by just saying he had an oblique injury, he had a torn meniscus injury fixed by surgery, and when he was able to pitch he never brought back memories of the budding star in ‘16. He looked pretty mediocre.

Then the big bolt of lightning struck in Spring Training of 2019. Fulmer needed Tommy John Surgery and he’d be out until mid-2020.

When a player goes away for 18 months things change. Some players have the star power to remain at the forefront of the fans’ minds. Fulmer is a quiet unassuming type. It’s been easy for the media and the fans to latch on to other stories in his absence. There’s been no real shortage of interesting guys.

Casey Mize was the first overall pick in 2018 and had shown glimpses of dominance sucked a no-hitter.  Matt Manning has been progressing steadily with a ton of promise. Tarik Skubal has vaulted from nobody to somebody in the time Fulmer has been gone.

In Detroit, Matthew Boyd has pitched well enough at times to be considered quality trade bait or be the guy to match up with Mize, Manning, and Skubal. Boyd also does amazing and commendable charity work drawing praise from everyone.

Even Spencer Turnbull managed to show enough arm talent to make folks forget his woeful W/L record. Daniel Norris’ van Story might be old but it keeps him entertaining.

Despite the woeful team record, it’s been easy to go weeks as a Tigers fan without thinking of Michael Fulmer.

Now he’s back. Unfortunately, he’s coming back for COVID-Summer and there is no guarantee what any of that means. His career would be at a crossroads in a normal season. What will this 60-game sprint season, that could be canceled at any minute, mean for him?

The Tigers control Fulmer’s rights through 2022. There is no question that if he could regain the form he showed in the first half of 2017, an All-Star guy, he could be a part of the Tigers’ resurrection.

Fulmer has been working during the COVID Shutdown in Lakeland. He’s got some simulated innings on his arm. How many innings can he be expected to log during a 60-game MLB run? The Tigers will almost certainly want Mize, Manning, and Skubal dipping into those finite number of big-league innings too. There won’t be that much to go around. Is Fulmer going to log 50 innings? 60? What would this meager number of innings mean for 2021? Adding 100 more to get to around 160 innings seems like a lot in ‘21. Then he’s a free agent after ‘22.

It seems like there are just too many variables to know exactly where Michael Fulmer’s career will go starting on Friday in Detroit. The Tigers know there is a valuable pitcher in there if they can find the right path for him.

Michael Fulmer has the chance to go from semi-forgotten to memorable. If he can stay healthy and look competitive in about 10 starts this year, that should set him up to join the youngsters in next year’s rotation. He’s never had more than 26 starts in a season but maybe that would be enough for the Tigers in ‘21.

The Tigers will then need to decide if he’s marketable in trade with free agency looming or worthy of an extension to lead the next hopeful contending Tigers teams.

The course of Fulmer’s career would have been a wild ride to this point alone based on his accomplishments and his injuries. The COVID uncertainty is just adding to the drama in a crazy way. It hasn’t been fair to Fulmer in most respects. But this path is the one he’s been saddled with. Hopefully, he has some easy riding terrain ahead to finish his career on an upward trajectory.