Detroit – If this were a normal spring – spoiler alert: it’s not – Michael Fulmer would be just about ready to start throwing to hitters, live bullpens. He is in month 14 of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The original timetable for his return was 14-16 months.
As he told The Detroit News in March and repeated to Tigers radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson last week, “I’m 100-percent pain-free and happy with the way everything is going.”
But here’s the rub: Unless Tigers head athletic trainer Doug Teter, equipment manager Jim Schmakel and director of minor league operations Dan Lunetta don batting helmets and pick up bats, Fulmer has nobody to throw batting practice to.
Welcome to the pandemic. Fulmer is one of three Tigers players still working out in Lakeland. (Pitching prospect Joey Wentz, who had Tommy John surgery in March, and Taiwanese right-hander Shao-Ching Chiang are the other two.)
Obviously, there are enough ballplayers living in the area who would gladly take their hacks against him, but the Tigers smartly prefer to pump the breaks on Fulmer’s timetable – especially when a restart to the season is still uncertain.
“No chance,” Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson said when asked if he thought Fulmer could be facing hitters soon. “I mean, you never say never, but I don’t see it. He might be ready to see hitters but I believe when we start our second spring training, whenever that will be, that would be the time to see Michael face hitters.”
You can’t blame Fulmer for trying to push the envelope. He’s 27 and three years removed from his Rookie of the Year season in 2017 – and 18 long, grueling months since he last threw a pitch in a big-league game (Sept. 15, 2018).
Since then he’s had major surgery on his knee and Tommy John surgery. And now he’s back on the mound, throwing pain-free, feeling as close to his old self as he possibly can.
Alas, as the old song goes, he’s all revved up with no place to go.
“Listen, it’s all speculation on what you have with Michael Fulmer right now,” Anderson said. “Obviously, missing all of last year, he’s got to get back to seeing hitters and playing the game. It’s not just about saying, ‘I feel strong. I feel ready.’”
Fielding drills, situational drills, backing up third, backing up home plate, going through five, six, seven innings of up-and-downs – there’s no way for Fulmer to simulate game speed without actually playing games. And there’s no way the club will clear him to return to big-league action without a minimum of five starts.
So, to project, if a second spring training could start late next month (speculation) and the season could start in mid-July (which seems overly optimistic), then it would put Fulmer on his initial timetable to return.
But with the shutdown, without hitters to throw to and with the possibility of no minor-league games to rehab in – that initial timetable may get elongated.
“Guys who have missed a lot of time like Michael lose some of that game awareness,” Anderson said. “It’s not just about throwing bullpens and saying I’m ready. He’s going to have to throw a lot more live BPs. We’re going to probably have to get him in simulated games just to get him back into game mode and then we’ll see where he’s at.”
Anderson isn’t trying to discourage Fulmer or dampen his drive to get back. More importantly, though, he does not want to risk any setbacks by setting unrealistic goals and timetables.
“Michael has been patient this long,” Anderson said. “He can be patient a little bit longer.”