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Detroit – Michael Fulmer said hello and joked around with several members of the Tigers front office Thursday, including general manager Al Avila and assistant general manager David Chadd, before embarking on the club’s annual winter caravan.

You’d never know that in a couple of weeks they will be squaring off in front of an arbitration panel – the Tigers defending their one-year, $2.8 million salary offer, Fulmer and his agents fighting for $3.4 million.

Fulmer is the first player to take the Tigers to arbitration since 2001, the first in Avila’s tenure. But, as anyone could tell on Thursday, it’s hardly shaping up to be the contentious, dispiriting, ego-crushing process you might think.

“It’s nothing personal,” Fulmer said. “There’s no bad blood or anything like that. It’s just a difference of business opinions.”

On the surface, it’s a $600,000 fight. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not so much about what the Tigers want to pay Fulmer in 2019, but more about what they will have to pay future players at Fulmer’s position and service time.

The Tigers, in a sense, are setting a salary structure here for first-year arbitration-eligible starting pitchers. And Fulmer is doing the same.

“The only thing I can say to that is I know how I can perform for this team when I am healthy,” Fulmer said. “And I want to reflect that for the future of the game, too. Not just for me, not just now, but in the future.

“I know how good I can be when I am healthy. I know the last year and a half hasn’t been great, but I know that I can step it up.”

The arbitration panel considers performance, a player’s full body of work, but also relies heavily comparison contracts. The process is broken down into service classes – first-year eligible and players who have already been through the process – at each position.

So, Fulmer’s salary request will be matched against other first-year eligible starting pitchers. This is an industry-wide process. But it also helps the Tigers establish a base for where negotiations would start for Fulmer again in 2020.

Understand, too, that very soon, a crop of highly-touted starting pitching prospects will be standing where Fulmer is today. Whatever baseline is established in this hearing – which takes place in St. Petersburg, Fla., next month – will have an impact on future cases with Casey Mize, Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Kyle Funkouser and Alex Faedo.

This is not just about the Tigers being miserly or Fulmer trying to squeeze another $600,000 out of the club for 2019.

“There’s no bad blood and nothing wrong,” Fulmer said of his relationship with the Tigers. “It’s just part of the business.”

Fulmer, who had meniscus surgery on his right knee in September, has been playing catch and throwing off flat ground since Jan. 2. He’s been rehabbing and training in Lakeland since Dec. 5.

Tigers claim Cowart

The Tigers claimed utility man Kaleb Cowart off waivers from the Mariners and may give him a chance to refashion his career as a pitcher. The Mariners were in the process of doing the same thing before designating him for assignment.

Cowart, 26, had played every position but catcher and pitcher in parts of four seasons with the Angels. His career slash-line was a very pitcher-like .177/.241/.293.

Cowart was a standout high school pitcher in Georgia. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was with the Diamondbacks in 2010 when they drafted Cowart. In claiming him off waivers from the Angels after last season, he'd envisioned using him as a super-utility player and extra pitcher.

Dipoto told reporters Cowart was throwing his fastball between 91-96 mph. 

The Tigers had an open spot on their 40-man roster with pitcher Gregory Soto, who is serving a suspension, on the restricted list.

What about A-Gon?

The Tigers were one of three teams that attended a showcase for first baseman-designated hitter Adrian Gonzalez in Northridge, Calif., last week.

The Tigers came away impressed with the 36-year-old Gonzalez (he’ll be 37 in May) and feel he could contribute to a team in 2019. But it doesn’t appear they are looking to sign him any time soon, at least not to a Major-League contract, any time soon.

With Miguel Cabrera (torn biceps) and John Hicks (core muscle surgery) cleared for full participation in spring training, the Tigers have enough depth at first base and DH.

Avila, when he was with Dave Dombrowski in Florida, drafted Gonzalez with the first overall pick in 2000.  

Twitter @cmccosky

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