The Detroit Tigers should consider bringing back another old friend
The Detroit Tigers have a hole in their bullpen after trading RHP Joe Jimenez to the Atlanta Braves for prospects Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jake Higginbotham. It's a trade that makes sense, but Jimenez was arguabably the best reliever on the team a year ago.
Michael Fulmer was another great reliever the Tigers had. He was obviously traded to the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 2 in exchange for pitching prospect Sawyer Gipson-Long. He was going to be a free agent at season's end, so parting with him to get some value in return made sense, even if the Tigers didn't really get much in return.
Now, Fulmer is a free agent, and he's still out there. Would it make sensse for the Tigers to bring him back, even on a one-year deal where he could be dealt at the deadline again?
Fulmer was with the Tigers for parts of seven seasons, acquired at the 2015 trade deadline from the New York Mets in exchange for OF Yoenis Cespedes (yes, he was a Tiger. I almost forgot about too.) He won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016 as a starting pitcher, where he had a 3.03 ERA and a 3.1 fWAR in 159 IP. This included a 33.1-inning scoreless streak.
After a solid 2017 season, the injury bug started to bite him in 2018, limiting him to just 132.1 innings. He ended up having Tommy John surgery that offseason and missing the entire 2019 season.
He came back in 2020, mostly as an opener, and he looked like a shell of his former self. He had a 8.78 ERA and his velocity was way down. Unfortunately, this was the only way he could rehab since there was no minor league season that year due to the pandemic.
The Tigers decided it was best if Fulmer became a reliever in 2021, and that turned out to be the right decision. He was reborn, making 52 appearances out of the bullpen and putting up a 2.97 ERA as well as the highest strikeout rate of his career. His velocity was back up too.
In 2022, the velocity dipped a bit, but it wasn't anything too concerning. He was still effective, especially since he just started spamming his slider. He threw that pitch 63.5% of the time in 2022 according to FanGraphs, compared to just 15.2% for his fastball.
He struggled a bit after he was traded to the Twins. Batters hit just .203 off him in Detroit, but they hit .313 off him in Minnesota. Three of the four homers he gave up in 2022 came during his time with the Twins.
Okay, let's get back to the original question. Does it make sense for the Tigers to bring Fulmer back? I think it does. He'll turn 30 during spring training, so he'll still be relativley young. Chris Fetter and the pitching coaches know Fulmer well, and they know what works for him. He liked playing here and he was well-liked by his teammates. It's definitely not out of the realm of possibility.
However, if there's one thing working against the Tigers, it's that relievers have been getting paid this offseason. Ranger Suarez and Rafael Montero both got deals around $10 million in AAV. That's a lot for a reliever. Chris Martin and Adam Ottavino, who will both be 37 years old in 2023, got deals of two years, $17.5 million and two-years. $14 million, respectively. Fulmer and his agent could be seeing dollar signs.
It is possible that Fulmer would be willing to take a hometown discount to return to the Tigers on a one-year prove-it deal. Fulmer made close to $5 million in arbitration last year, so he's probably at least looking to get more than that.
Team and fit wise, the reunion makes sense. Michael Fulmer would be a welcome re-addition to the Detroit Tigers bullpen. The question is, as it always seems to be, how will the money work?