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Tigers expect 14- to 16-month process for Fulmer to return to big-league action

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Michael Fulmer

Lakeland, Fla. – There is still no date or choice of surgeon for Michael Fulmer’s impending Tommy John surgery to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. But on Thursday morning, the Tigers were still sifting through the fallout for Fulmer and the Tigers going forward.

“We feel very bad about it,” general manager Al Avila said. “It’s definitely a career-changing kind of injury, but our hope is that he can bounce back and get back on the mound.”

Fulmer said he expects to be out 12 to 14 months after surgery. Tigers head athletic trainer Doug Teter said that was a little optimistic.

“It’s honestly more like 14 to 16 months,” Teter said. “They say 12 months because, when the physician does the surgery, it’s always been with a UCL, ‘Well, he’ll be back in 12 months.’ But that maybe 12 months until he’s throwing off a mound, but not at the previous level of activity.

“He may be able to pitch in extended spring or maybe live batting practice, but not at this level. We’re going to do it safe, build up the pitches, make sure it’s strong, build in enough rest time. So, more like 14 to 16.”

So, essentially, if all goes well, Fulmer will be finishing his rehab and beginning his throwing program at this point next season, and still be two to four months away from returning to big-league competition.

“Knowing Michael, after the surgery he will work hard,” Avila said. “He will rehab, and a lot of that will happen right here in Lakeland under our supervision. We hope we can get him back pitching again, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t.

“It’s just an unfortunate situation, but I believe he will come through it.”

Teter confirmed what Fulmer said on Wednesday, that the elbow injury was completely separate from the knee issues he was dealing with prior to feeling discomfort in the elbow.

“We had pulled him back, pulled him out of games because Rick (Anderson, pitching coach) identified something we need to work on, just in how he was pitching coming off knee surgery,” Teter said. “In the course of working on that, on the side throwing a bullpen, he came up with some elbow soreness.

“We wanted to investigate that before we went forward with it.”

It was standard operating procedure, except instead of finding normal inflammation, the MRI showed damage to the ligament. And, as Fulmer said, it took him completely by surprise. Especially since Dr. James Andrews reported in 2017, after he performed ulnar transposition surgery, that the ligament was healthy.

“I know (Fulmer) used the word pristine,” Teter said. “I would question whether anyone’s elbow is pristine after they’ve thrown past high school. It (Fulmer’s UCL) wasn’t perfect, but I don’t think it was beat up to the point where it needed surgery then.

“I think that’s what Dr. Andrews was getting at when he went in and did the ulnar transposition.”

Teter explained that with any surgery, surgeons will check the integrity of the ligaments while the patient is under anesthesia. If it’s a meniscus surgery, they will check the ACL and PCL ligaments, as well. Same in the elbow.

“Dr. Andrews was saying at that point, the UCL was still very stable,” Teter said.

A year later, it tore. The doctors and Fulmer both believe scar tissue build-up from both a bone spur removal in 2014 and the transposition surgery contributed.

“It just built up over the year,” Fulmer said of the scar tissue. “I don’t know why. It wasn’t like it was coming back from way back when. It’s not like they knew that when I came over here (from the Mets), or they knew when I got drafted. Andrews really looked at it and said it was strong and it was firm, the attachment was strong.

“I read his report the other day just to make sure. They said the scar tissue over the last year from the nerve surgery, it just put a little bit of stress on my elbow, where the attachments are, and it kind of just deteriorated.”

Dixon to Toledo

The Tigers Thursday optioned utility player Brandon Dixon to Triple-A Toledo.

That means the battle for the final position player spot on the Tigers 25-man roster is down to two -- Gordon Beckham and Ronny Rodriguez.

Dixon, whom the Tigers claimed off waivers from Cincinnati, got off to a hot start this spring but has cooled off in recent weeks. He got most of his playing time at first base and third base.

Twitter @cmccosky