Lakeland, Fla. — Most big-league teams treat super-talented young pitchers like monarchy and make them roster pillars.
The Tigers ideally would do just that with Michael Fulmer.
But they probably can’t.
The problem is that Fulmer’s excellence likely doubles as a ticket out of town. The Tigers are trying to re-stock a roster with some long-term muscle, as well as with thoughts that a few years from now a team will have enough core talent to make the playoffs minus a saint’s intercession. But they’re short on pieces that can’t really be collected by way of drafts, international signings, and free-agent cash.
It will, almost certainly, require trades of the kind the Tigers’ division neighbor, the White Sox, have made the past two years in grabbing a minor-league mother lode in their swaps of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
This was not the most comfortable subject to lay at Fulmer’s feet a few days into spring camp. But because hard realities will be part of life at Comerica Park in 2018, it was broached with him Sunday, this thought — one writer’s, anyway — that Fulmer might be too good for Detroit’s current times.
Fulmer was coming off a workout and a shower and was eager to jump into brown-leather cowboy boots that lay in the seat of his clubhouse chair at Marchant Stadium’s Tigers clubhouse.
But he understood the question, all because he appreciates baseball’s business realities.
“Al’s got to do what he has to do,” Fulmer said, speaking of Tigers general manager Al Avila, whose assignment is to reconstruct a winner in Detroit.
“All my focus is on pitching as well as I can for this team for as long as I can.”
What a response. Perfect accountability. Impeccable diplomacy.
The rationale for dealing him remains compelling and probably unavoidable. And it breaks down along dual lines.
The Tigers showed with last summer’s Justin Verlander trade that dealing a top-of-the-rotation star is the most direct way to pump gallons of talented blood into a team’s system. The three players the Tigers got from Houston for Verlander are now three of their top 10 prospects.
The White Sox had gotten potentially more handsome payoffs in trading Sale and Quintana, who unlike Verlander had the enticements of owning cheap contracts. The White Sox got from Boston — for Sale — four players, two of which, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, could be powerhouse stars. They also landed young pitcher Victor Diaz and prospect outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe.
In shipping Quintana to the Cubs, the White Sox landed an elegant four-player package: outfielder Eloy Jimenez, pitcher Dylan Cease, and two infielders, Matt Rose and Bryant Flete. Jimenez and Cease, particularly, have a chance to be a great deal better than good.
Factoring in Detroit’s haul for Verlander, these are three trade-mart examples of what Fulmer can and should bring Detroit’s way, assuming health and the brand of performance he has displayed the past two seasons follow him into 2018. All evidence suggests Fulmer, who in a few weeks turns 25, will continue with what could be a steady climb to a passel of future Cy Young Award votes.
Fulmer could indeed stick with Detroit and function as that rotation giant who is an automatic Opening Day horse and who each year gives you 200 blue-chip innings. He, in fact, is a “pitcher you can build around,” to cite the common refrain and protest when it’s so much as hinted the Tigers might need to deal Fulmer.
The difficulty is two-fold. A starting pitcher can only work every five games. That leaves the next four days in other pitchers’ and players’ hands. And the Tigers could be too bare on those ends to be much more than a mid-range, at best, pretender.
By pulling in multiple blue-chippers, you give your roster a better chance to heal and dazzle for the long haul. The trade return in these kinds of deals normally includes a starting pitcher who, if not likely to be a star on Fulmer’s scale, probably qualifies as a future top-end starter. That’s a healthy bargain when other everyday talent figures also to be part of the trade parcel.
Hang on to Fulmer and in three seasons the Tigers would be looking at free agency and the need to write a check for $150 million or more to keep him. That might be worthwhile. But it’s more likely the Tigers will do better, given their current reconstruction mode, to deal him for three or four players who project to play and even star in Detroit.
One customer could be emerging even as spring camp convenes. The Padres on Saturday signed Eric Hosmer to a fat deal and are serious about the National League West. They need pitching, primarily, and Fulmer would conceivably be an ideal fit.
They also have a loaded farm system that happens to match the Tigers’ needs. No one should prepare for anything immediate, but this is the kind of trade that’s at least plausible, with a reasonable chance it could be made well before the customary heavy shopping season arrives in July.
It was believed here a year ago that Verlander would be dealt. Not only because the Tigers needed the prospects he could draw, but also because a pitcher of Verlander’s elitism deserved to be on stage in October, during playoff season, helping a team that was a pitcher shy of a world championship get its World Series parade.
That’s precisely what happened when the Tigers teamed up with the Astros. Houston got its trophy. The Tigers got three desperately needed prospects.
Fulmer isn’t an absolute corollary here. He is 10 years younger than Verlander and he also is coming off nerve surgery that short-changed his 2017 season.
But he is at full gear as camp begins. And a healthy Fulmer is a near-lock to be as exceptional as he was in his first two big-league seasons.
That translates into some real opportunity for Fulmer, and for the Tigers, as one team’s remodeling project continues, and as another team searches for a starter who could push it deep into October’s postseason party.