The Detroit Tigers bid farewell to their former Rookie of the Year.
The Michael Fulmer Era in Detroit is over. Just before Tuesday’s MLB trade deadline the Tigers agreed to send him to the Minnesota Twins for minor-league pitcher Sawyer Gipson-Long.
Gipson-Long was not listed among Minnesota’s top 40 prospects at FanGraphs, nor their top 30 prospects at Baseball America or MLB Pipeline. That doesn’t mean he won’t ever be a big leaguer, but it certainly feels like an underwhelming return for Michael Fulmer.
And it’s hard not to look back on Fulmer’s tenure with the Tigers and wonder what might have been.
Originally drafted by the New York Mets with the 44th overall pick in 2011, Michael Fulmer came to the Detroit Tigers at the 2015 trade deadline. It was watershed moment for the franchise, as it also marked the end of Dave Dombrowski’s time in Detroit, and the beginning of Al Avila’s tenure general manager.
Fulmer was pitching in Double-A at the time, and he made six strong starts for the Erie SeaWolves after the deal, going 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA, 33 strikeouts, and just 7 walks in 31.2 innings. He entered the 2016 season as the 53rd best prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.
And this is where the what ifs begin.
What if the Detroit Tigers promoted Michael Fulmer to begin 2016?
The Detroit Tigers kept Michael Fulmer in Triple-A Toledo to begin the season, choosing instead to go with a pitching rotation of Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, and Shane Greene. At the time of Fulmer’s MLB debut the Tigers were 11-10, and they had gone 1-2 in Shane Greene’s starts.
It was Greene’s blister issues that opened a spot in the rotation for Fulmer, who then went on to have one of the finest rookie seasons for a Detroit Tigers pitcher in franchise history. He finished the year with an 11-7 record, a 3.06 ERA, and America League Rookie of the Year honors.
Fulmer sported a 6.52 ERA after his first four starts in 2016, but then he broke out a nasty changeup against Tampa in his 5th outing:
That terrific start kicked off a remarkable stretch from Fulmer in which he allowed two runs or fewer in ten consecutive starts, and gave up just five earned runs over 65.1 innings (0.69 ERA).
The Detroit Tigers finished the 2016 season with an 86-75 record, and they fell 2.5 games shy of a Wild Card spot. Perhaps they still would have fallen short with a full season of Fulmer. But they haven’t sniffed the playoffs since, and it’s hard not to wonder how they might have fared had Fulmer begun the season in their rotation.
What if the Detroit Tigers traded Michael Fulmer after 2017?
Fulmer followed his great rookie year with a sophomore campaign that was arguably more impressive — at least until he hurt his elbow in late July. He came back for four more starts in August, but allowed 14 earned runs in 24.1 innings and was shut down in September when the elbow soreness recurred.
It’s easy now to look back to 2017 and say the Tigers should have traded Fulmer then. But he was the team’s best young player and he looked like a big piece of their future, so it’s hard to blame the Tigers for holding onto him. It’s a situation not unlike the Tarik Skubal discussion this year. But there were some calling for a Fulmer trade even back in 2017, like Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press:
"(Fulmer) is, in short, the best pitcher the Detroit Tigers have, and the team’s best contract. And he is likely to get better.Which means the Tigers absolutely have to consider trading him. At the least, they have to listen."
A few years later another Free Press writer, Anthony Fenech, reported the Tigers actually received a few interesting offers for Fulmer at the 2017 deadline:
"Two seasons ago, they were aggressively approached about right-hander Michael Fulmer, who was coming off an AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 and was the Tigers’ All-Star representative in 2017. In what looms as the biggest mistake of their rebuilding process, the team rebuffed an offer for Fulmer involving two young players who are now among the best in baseball: According to multiple persons with knowledge of the talks, the Cubs offered shortstop Javier Baez as part of a three-player package and the Astros offered third baseman Alex Bregman for Fulmer and lefty reliever Justin Wilson."
The Tigers obviously didn’t take either deal, which again, was understandable at the time. The club didn’t fully commit to their rebuild until the end of August 2017. Bregman and Baez hadn’t yet become stars, and Fulmer was struggling at that point. It’s possible the Tigers simply missed their chance by one month.
And the rest is history. Michael Fulmer struggled to a 4.69 ERA in 2018, battling back from a strained oblique in July, only to suffer a torn meniscus in September. In an effort to protect his knees, Fulmer wore a brace and altered his mechanics during 2019 spring training. His velocity dipped, he ditched the brace, and then he tore his UCL.
Fulmer missed all of 2019 and returned in 2020 as a shell of his former self, throwing 93 MPH for three innings at a time and getting shelled to the tune of an 8.78 ERA. He permanently moved to the bullpen in 2021 and became a stunningly effective reliever, but once again the Tigers chose not to trade him. The club was playing quality baseball, and with one year left before free agency, Fulmer figured to be a key part of the team’s bullpen in 2022.
And he was. Fulmer regressed some in 2022, but he remained a nightmare to face for right-handed hitters. Unfortunately, the rest of team fell apart in disastrous fashion.
What Michael Fulmer Represents
No Tigers fans should complain about Michael Fulmer the person, or the player. He was talented, he worked hard, and he reinvented himself multiple times. He deserves to have as much personal and professional success as possible.
But there’s also no player more emblematic of Al Avila’s tenure as general manager than Michael Fulmer. They arrived together, and the early results were positive. But an endless string of bad luck, injuries, and miscalculations ultimately led to the Tigers trading Fulmer at the nadir of his value.
Back in 2016 no one would have envisioned Fulmer’s Tigers career ending with such a whimper. But, sadly, Tigers fans have become used to this sort of thing by now. It happened with Matthew Boyd. It happened with Nick Castellanos. It happened with Daniel Norris.
Perhaps that’s just baseball. But it has definitely been a hallmark of the current era of Detroit Tigers baseball, and it’s hard to blame fans if they aren’t terribly optimistic about the future of the franchise.