Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.
It all started with a game of chicken. At least, that's how we hope Michael Fulmer's Detroit Tigers epitaph reads one day. A buzzer-beating, who-blinks-first trade deadline deal with the New York Mets in 2015 netted the Tigers a pair of nice prospects in exchange for two months of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Righthander Luis Cessa has since been traded to the New York Yankees, but the jewel of the haul was Fulmer, a promising 22-year-old righthander who was drafted 44th overall by the Mets in 2011.
After a solid full season debut in the Sally League in 2012, Fulmer shot up Mets prospect rankings, rubbing elbows with the top arms in their system ($). He suffered through a pair of injury-riddled seasons in 2013 and 2014 before a big breakout last year. Finally healthy, Fulmer posted a 10-3 record and 2.24 ERA in 124 2/3 innings, all but seven of which were spent in the Double-A Eastern League. He won Pitcher of the Year honors and instantly rocketed to the top of the Tigers' farm system rankings.
Now, Fulmer is poised to take the next step. He has been ranked first in the Tigers' system by every prospect site out there, and squeaked into Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 list at No. 87 overall. With a deep arsenal and above average command, Fulmer will likely see time in Detroit in 2016.
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All throughout his minor league career, evaluators have praised Fulmer's fastball and slider, a powerful combination atop his arsenal. His fastball draws plus grades across the board, with a velocity band that stretches from 92-93 miles per hour in most starts up to 97 miles per hour at peak. TigsTown's Mark Anderson noted some nice sink and movement on the fastball, while most other scouting reports gloss over the pitch altogether, indicating its a near-finished product.
Fulmer has also drawn praise for a pair of solid breaking pitches, the more advanced of which is his slider. His slider took a step forward in 2015, with many sources saying he did a better job of throwing it for strikes. It's a sharp pitch with tight movement and true swing-and-miss potential. His low-80s curveball isn't quite as nasty, but still projects as a major league average pitch that breaks on a more vertical plane than the slider.
While Fulmer hasn't thrown many innings throughout his minor league career, he has the body and frame to be a true front-of-the-rotation starter. He is listed at 6'3 and 200 pounds, and delivers from a high three-quarters arm slot. Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus noted that Fulmer repeated his delivery more consistently in 2015, resulting in a slight improvement in his already solid command. He walked 30 batters in 117 2/3 Double-A innings last season, a rate of just 2.29 batters per nine innings.
Given his advanced arsenal and proximity to the major leagues, the biggest concern surrounding Fulmer at this point is his durability. Amazin' Avenue illustrated many of these concerns prior to 2015 when he ranked 20th in their organizational prospect rankings.
"The bloom is off the prospect rose for the former first-rounder with one-time aspirations to complement the likes of Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard. Staying healthy has been a serious bugaboo for the 21-year-old Fulmer who has already dealt with concerns over his knee, shoulder, and elbow during his short professional career. The stuff hasn't developed to the level that many hoped from the high ceiling prep draftee."
Fulmer suffered a litany of injuries in 2013 and 2014, limiting him to just 382 2/3 innings across four minor league seasons. He only logged 124 2/3 innings last season, and will need two or three injury-free seasons just to build up the stamina to reach his 200-inning potential. If injury concerns continue to mount, Fulmer may be reduced to a relief role. He may still be successful in that role -- he has the stuff to be a dominant closer -- but it would be a disappointment given his lofty potential as a starting pitcher.
If he is able to stick in the rotation, Fulmer's secondary pitches could limit his overall ceiling. Baseball Prospectus labeled his changeup as "the weak link in his arsenal," a common criticism for many young pitchers. TigsTown's Mark Anderson gave the pitch a 4 grade (indicating a below average offering) with a 4+ future grade. Fulmer's curveball is more advanced, but also draws similar criticisms due to a lack of consistency with the pitch. In order to truly leap into a mid- or upper-rotation role, he will need to better hone one of these offerings to add to his power fastball-slider combination.
Evaluation: Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus
"The question marks going forward for Fulmer are whether he can show the same stuff and produce the same results at higher levels while handling a bigger workload (he hasn’t topped the 125-inning mark). If he can, he’s a potential no. 2 starter, with high-leverage reliever a more likely possibility if his health and consistency issues persist."
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
Fulmer torched the Eastern League for a full season in 2015, and will get a long look from the Tigers during spring training. He's a lock to make his major league debut in 2016, but his injury history and future value to the organization will likely keep him in the minor leagues to start the year. Don't be surprised if the Tigers limit his innings early on too; he will likely top out in the 150-160 inning range, and may be asked to pitch into September and October if the opportunity arises.