Wojo: Michael Fulmer’s health is stable, future is uncertain

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Buck Farmer does a dance off with members of the Groves High School baseball team during a stop on the Tigers Winter Caravan School.

Detroit — He introduced himself to new teammates and met his new manager for the first time. He said he felt good, his elbow felt great, and he’s already throwing hard and easily.

It was important to hear, because what Michael Fulmer says matters more these days, with few high-profile players left for the Tigers to trot out. At 24, he’s certainly not the team’s elder statesman, but he’s one of the most-recognizable faces and biggest pieces.

So it’s significant news that the surgery to move a nerve in Fulmer’s right elbow was a complete success, according to early returns.

He threw his first full bullpen session in Lakeland Wednesday morning, effortlessly fired 20 fastballs, then jumped on a plane to Detroit for the Tigers’ Winter Caravan.

“Went fantastic, got no complaints, no pain, no setbacks,” Fulmer said Thursday. “Haven’t felt numbness or anything since the surgery. I should have no restrictions heading toward spring training at all, 100 percent.”

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That means Fulmer can resume his role as a centerpiece of the Tigers’ rebuild. It also means he can resume his role as perhaps the Tigers’ biggest attraction – to fans, and yes, to opposing general managers.

No, for the 4,845th time, the Tigers aren’t looking to trade Fulmer to accelerate their overhaul. I wouldn’t deal him under virtually any circumstance, because whatever prime prospects you might get in return, you hope just one of them turns into, you know, the next Fulmer.

Makes no sense

It makes no sense to me, and no sense to a lot of people. Except it might make sense in today’s baseball climate for a contending team, eager to nudge payroll below the luxury tax, to offer a ton for a right-handed power pitcher under affordable team control for four more years.

Tigers GM Al Avila reiterated he’ll listen to anything because he’d be irresponsible not to do so. Whatever you think of Avila’s rebuilding performance so far — mixed returns — you can’t question his determination to stick to the long-term plan.

Michael Fulmer

“It’s only natural those teams are gonna call me and see if they can come up with a good trade to get Michael Fulmer,” said Avila, also confirming the positive reports on Fulmer’s elbow. “He knows that, we talked about that. I have no desire to trade him at this point. But if somebody had interest, we’d listen, and we have to. Is he here for the long haul, through the whole rebuild? I can’t tell you that, no fan can tell you that. That debate to me really is hollow.”

Fulmer gets it. For a guy entering only his third major-league season, he gets a lot. He learned from departed stars such as Justin Verlander, and understands his voice and his role now amplify.

Just to be sure, he checked in with Avila Thursday morning on trade rumors, and that was it. Clearly, the Tigers aren’t done making moves, and clearly Fulmer will be the name on other teams’ wish lists.

“It’s out of my hands, I don’t pay attention to it,” said Fulmer, who turns 25 in March. “Al said they gotta listen on some things, which I don’t blame them. But I love it here, hope to stay here for a while.”

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You hope to stay even though you might spend your prime years toiling on a non-contender?

“I don’t see it as a rebuilding stage,” Fulmer said. “I see it as a bunch of younger guys trying to compete and push each other. We got nothing to live up to, according to everybody else. So there’s no pressure, none at all.”

That’s what players must say on a team pegged to lose about 100 games. Baseball is the ultimate one-on-one game within the game, and long-term plans can’t affect individual performance.

'He's an animal'

Fulmer is determined to show his subpar 2017 season — 10-12, 3.83 ERA — wasn’t who he is. He battled the nerve issue all year, occasionally shaking his numb right arm on the mound. At times, he admits it got scary. Even though the ulnar nerve transposition surgery was considered relatively routine and the rehabilitation a smooth three-month process, it was, well, nerve-wracking, and Fulmer’s relief now is palpable.

“I’m not gonna say last year was a terrible year for me, but I wasn’t happy with it,” he said. “So I’m glad we got in there and fixed the problem that’s been bothering me for a couple years — it was getting to the point where it wasn’t safe at all. I couldn’t be happier now with where we are. When healthy, I know what I can do and what this team can do.”

He pitched through it during his stellar 2016 season, when he was 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA and won the AL Rookie of the Year. Fulmer’s style is all about bulk and power, and he figures he can return to that form if he’s not worrying about the next time he feels a twinge in the elbow.

One guy who has watched from a distance can’t wait to see it.

“Not very many pitchers, when they’re healthy, can stand out there and just throw fastballs past people,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s that guy. He’s an animal.”

Not in the technical sense, although Fulmer’s beard remains sufficiently bushy. But you get the feeling he’d rather be called an animal than an ace, because he isn’t interested in elevating himself above others.

It’s a solid leadership trait, the ability to exhibit star qualities without diminished work ethic, kind of like Verlander. It’s one of the reasons you suspect Fulmer should be a long-time Tiger, except that so much is changing so quickly around here, one never knows. There are no untouchables, and that’s fine with him.

It’s up to others to set and reset the big picture. For Fulmer, who has been working out in Lakeland the past month already, it’s about the smaller frames, and maintaining the sweet, pain-free release of a baseball.

“Everything’s ahead of schedule right now,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully, I stay on that path.”

If he stays on that path, it could lead him just about anywhere.