Detroit — The Tigers are hawking pieces of their past, while hunting for chunks of their future. They’re stuck in a miserable middle, between wondering and waiting, between selling a little or selling a lot.
Their biggest chunk of the future is Michael Fulmer, and he can’t help but wonder where he fits, and who will fit around him. He doesn’t want to be traded, and there’s no strong indication the Tigers are considering it. His name surfaces in rumors ostensibly because other teams ask, not because the Tigers offer.
As a 24-year-old ace on an affordable contract, Fulmer is extremely valuable. He’s also not prone to strong statements, so when he spoke matter-of-factly Wednesday, it wasn’t some mandate to GM Al Avila. It was, however, unusually pointed — whatever the Tigers do, he prefers they commit to it completely, not halfway, when the trade deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday.
“I hope if we go ahead and sell, I hope we do it all, I hope we go all out,” Fulmer said before the Tigers were blasted by the Kansas City Royals 16-2. “I hope we don’t sell a few guys here. I hope we get younger, I hope we take a more business approach to it.”
Wise, measured words from a young guy who knows his standing in this organization, and it’s growing dramatically. Unless, of course, the Tigers veered suddenly —– and foolishly — and launched a massive rebuild by trading their biggest asset, Fulmer himself.
That remains highly doubtful and illogical, although Fulmer doesn’t discount it. He also doesn’t fret about it. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of fretting among the Tigers’ trade candidates, from the veteran star pitcher to the closer to the catcher who happens to be the GM’s son.
Justin Verlander’s hefty contract makes it difficult to deal him, but by age and accomplishment, he seems the most ready to go. He doesn’t want to endure a painful rebuild, and contenders surely will keep exploring until the deadline.
And let’s be very clear on this: It would be ludicrous and irresponsible for the Tigers to dump Verlander’s contract simply to shed payroll, without getting prime prospects in return. It should be unacceptable to fans, and I suspect Avila and owner Chris Ilitch know how bad it would look.
A eye to the future
Avila has said saving money is not the primary goal, and now he has to prove it. If the $56 million owed Verlander for 2018 and ’19 scares off suitors, the Tigers should pay some of it themselves, or keep their long-time ace and revisit the issue in the offseason.
I think that’s the subtle point Fulmer was making. If the rebuild can’t be done right, don’t do it yet. If it must be done, do it fully. Fulmer hears the rumors and tries to ignore them, but has discussed the plan with assistant GM David Chadd.
“I told David, whatever has to be done, it needs to be done,” Fulmer said. “I just want to win. That’s my main priority. … Obviously at the start of the year, we thought we had a very good chance to win, and we still think that, don’t get me wrong. Obviously Al has a different approach to it now because he wants to sell everything and kind of start all over, which is fine by me. Either way, I’m good. I just want to be part of a winning team.”
Fulmer considers Verlander a mentor, and someday hopes to have the same type of role on this team. He sees the spot Verlander once occupied — rising star on a rising team — and relishes it. He sees the spot Verlander may be in now — high-paid icon on a fading team — and understands the business side of it.
Has Fulmer thought about this side — the possibility of spending the upcoming prime of a young career on a rebuilding team?
“Yeah, it’s crossed my mind,” he said. “Then again, I hope I get an opportunity where I can actually be a leader for this team. … Ver’s been a huge help. Obviously I’d like to play with him as long as I can. Obviously business says otherwise, whatever happens in the next 4-5 days.”
Fulmer has done a fine job pitching through the uncertainty, and his slider had vicious bite in the 3-1 loss to the Royals the other night. He’s 10-8 with a 3.35 ERA, competing fiercely as the Tigers plummeted out of contention.
Keeping them informed
Like most players involved in the speculation, Fulmer looks forward to some relief and resolution Monday when the plan — at least, the short-term one — finally will be revealed
“We don’t really worry about it,” Fulmer said. “I’m at that point now, whatever happens, happens. And I believe everything happens for a reason.”
Same question to Verlander: Relief, one way or the other?
“Sure, I guess, gonna be a long week,” he said after his outing Monday night. “Until somebody talks to me about it, I’m not really paying attention to it.”
Avila’s plans have been mostly transparent, although occasionally clumsy. He declared everyone available in the offseason, then made one trade in a shifting market, sending away Cameron Maybin. He dealt J.D. Martinez last week, but since has rejected suggestions the Tigers are desperate to dump bodies and salary. On any trade discussions involving Fulmer, Avila recently said “never say never,” but the chances were “probably zero.”
Justin Wilson remains the chip most easily moved — affordable lefty — and should draw a solid return of prospects. At least you can say nobody will be blindsided by whatever the Tigers do. The players have heard it all, and not even the GM’s son gets a reprieve from the swirl — or a hint of the scoop, either.
“The one thing my dad has done, he’s been in communication with everybody whose names are circulated,” catcher Alex Avila said. “All of us have been well-informed. There’s nothing you can do.”
That’s the only approach a trade candidate can take. But when you’re the new star bulldog around whom the next era is supposed to be built, you’re likely to have a deeper, vested interest in the future here.
Fulmer is young enough to be wide-eyed by the business, mature enough to understand the process.
“I mean, who doesn’t want controllable starting pitching?” Fulmer said. “For any team, whether you’re buying, selling or standing pat, if you can have a guy for a few more years, I understand that. Being one of the few young guys on this team, I hope the Tigers obviously want it, too.”
He hopes the Tigers know what they want. More important, he hopes — like many here hope — they have a way to pull it off.