Future Tiger starter Fulmer fights for bullpen role
Lakeland, Fla. – Matt Harvey. Jacob deGrom. Noah Syndergaard. Jon Niese. Steven Matz.
These were the pitching prospects Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer came into professional baseball with or competing against as a first-round pick of the Mets in 2011. You couldn’t blame him for feeling his upward mobility in that organization might be a tad stunted.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Fulmer said after throwing a bullpen session at TigerTown Tuesday. “I’m ecstatic with the trade. As far as the Mets go and their young pitching, I played with most of those guys growing up in my career and they are all great pitchers and good guys.
“Obviously I think my stuff can compete with them. But they are there and I’m not. I am happy the trade happened. I was happy with the Mets and I’m even happier here.”
Fulmer came to the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes trade last July, and went from the No. 13 prospect in the Mets’ system to the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Tigers’.
This is his first big league spring camp. There he was on Tuesday, first watching Justin Verlander throw a 50-pitch bullpen and then take his turn alongside veteran Jordan Zimmermann. Afterward, he asked Zimmermann how he gripped his slider.
“I’m just honored and blessed to be here with this great organization,” he said. “I’m just looking to compete. Whatever I have to do. I try to be a very coachable guy. I’ll be listening to all these big league coaches and veterans – it’s great just being around this atmosphere.”
Fulmer will be 23 next month and hasn’t pitched above Double-A – though he dominated the Eastern League with both Binghamton and Erie last season (10-3, 2.24 ERA, 1.075 WHIP, 125 strikeouts in 124.2 innings).
Long-term, Fulmer projects to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues. But if he’s going to make the Tigers out of spring training this year, it’ll will be out of the bullpen.
“Looking at it realistically, if he were to make the club he would be a reliever,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “If he doesn’t make the club, he’d be a starter (in Toledo).”
Although Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee have yet to formulate a plan for Fulmer, indications are he will work out of the bullpen initially.
“You have enough time in spring,” Ausmus said. “You could work out of the pen right now in camp. There would be a point where if we thought he was going to be a starter in Toledo, we could make the switch and get his innings up – like we did with Buck Farmer last year.”
Fulmer has pitched in relief just once professionally, back in rookie ball in 2011. He has made 75 minor league starts.
“They haven’t told me anything -- just come in and compete,” he said. “I will do whatever the team asks.”
His stuff should translate well to the bullpen. He’s a strike-thrower, first and foremost. His fastball touches 97 mph with a cruising speed of 94-95. He also throws a hard slider (86-88) with severe downward sink.
His other two pitches, curve and changeup, are still works in progress. He wouldn’t need to develop those as quickly if he was working in relief.
Barring injury or unforeseen underperformance, five of the seven bullpen spots are spoken for – closer Francisco Rodriguez, set-up men Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson, plus Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy.
Fulmer will compete with Drew VerHagen, Kyle Ryan, Bruce Rondon, Angel Nesbitt, Farmer and Shane Greene for the final two spots.
“Nobody is locked in,” Ausmus said. “VerHagen, the way he pitched last year gives him an edge, for sure. But it’s still a situation where performance will dictate.”
Fulmer, who battled a meniscus injury in 2013 and had bone chips removed from his elbow in 2014, is fully healthy and ready for the fight.
“I’m confident in myself,” he said. “That’s what I learned over the last couple of years dealing with the injuries. Last year was a huge year for me. I rebounded well and my body felt good. It was my first 100-percent season since 2012.
“But I am always looking to get better. I’m not satisfied with where I am.”