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Tigers willing to roll the dice with Fulmer

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer will face the Royals in the series opener on Friday at Comerica Park.

Detroit — The Tigers fully acknowledge they’re taking a chance with Michael Fulmer.

Much of the season, it’s been generally accepted that they didn’t want the rookie right-hander to go much more than 160 innings — which would be around a 25-percent bump from a year ago.

But in his next start, a huge one Friday night against the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, he will go past that mark.

And by season’s end, he’ll be well past that.

Fulmer stands to be a huge part of the Tigers’ future — he could very well be an ace-in-waiting — hence the reason for the club’s caution. But the Tigers also are in the thick of a playoff race, hence the reason they’re taking a risk.

It’s a fine line the Tigers brass have been walking.

“We want to be on the cautious side,” manager Brad Ausmus said Thursday morning, ahead of the series finale against the Minnesota Twins. “I think there’s risk anytime he takes the mound.”

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“People make a lot of innings and protecting guys,” Ausmus said. “Guys are getting Tommy John surgeries at an unbelievable rate, even with the protection.”

This isn’t a new discussion around baseball, of course. Two cases stand out in recent years.

The Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, and didn’t pitch him in the playoffs — and they lost their Division Series in five games, to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Then last summer, Matt Harvey and his agent, Scott Boras — clearly with eyes on a big contract down the road — started floating the idea of an innings limit, which didn’t please the New York Mets, who were laser-focused on 2015. Eventually, the drama boiled over, he kept pitching, and the Mets made it to the World Series.

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Related or not, Harvey then had surgery this past July for thoracic outlet syndrome and was lost for the year.

“The 25-percent (innings bump), maybe there’s proof out there that it protects pitchers," Ausmus said. “I haven’t seen it.”

Ausmus pointed to Greg Maddux, who jumped nearly 100 innings from his 21-year-old season to his 22-year-old season.

Maddux, a hard thrower back then, went on to pitch in the major leagues 23 years, making near every start.

That’s not to say the Tigers haven’t watched Fulmer like a hawk. They’ve skipped his turn occasionally over the summer, and when given the opportunity, they’ve given him an extra day of rest between starts.

He’ll have an extra day between his last start and Friday’s, too, though that was installed so he’d be in line face the Indians twice in the final three weeks. Without Justin Verlander and Fulmer, the Tigers’ playoff hopes would’ve been shot months ago.

Of course, like any competitor, Fulmer, 23, who’s 10-6 with a 2.76 ERA and the leading candidate for AL rookie of the year after being acquired last summer from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, hasn’t wanted the extra days of rest.

Ausmus’ response?

“I don’t care, simple as that,” Ausmus said. “We’re doing it for a reason. I don’t know if that reason will work or if it’s right, but we’re trying to protect him.

“Just talked to him in Kansas City about that particular thing — he’d rather have a regular pitching schedule. I said, ‘I get it, but we’re trying to find a way to get you through the whole season as opposed to shutting you down, so pick your poision. You want to be on every five days and we shut you down mid-September, or you want to do it this way and get to pitch through the rest of the season?’

“He’s been great about it. I just think he feels like he’s being handled with kid gloves and he doesn’t want to be handled with kid gloves.

“I said, ‘You get through it this year and next year, you don’t have to worry about it. You’ll be able to hit 200 innings and the kid gloves will be off.’”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984