No one is safe.
This seems to be the unofficial motto of the Detroit Tigers since the July trade deadline. The Tigers traded away Alex Avila, Justin Wilson, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, and Justin Verlander, all in the span of two months. During that same period, they also listened to offers on almost every player on their roster.
But there’s one rumor that simply doesn’t make sense: trading Michael Fulmer.
Several times, when whispers of a Fulmer trade surface, the argument seems to be “Why wouldn’t you trade him if you could get three more minor league Michael Fulmers in the deal? Isn’t trading one Fulmer for three Fulmers a smart trade?”
Yeah, sure. Trading my car in for three new cars also sounds great, but what this deal really equates to is trading my car for three bikes and hoping one of those bikes turns into a Porsche.
Since Verlander’s departure, Fulmer has become the de facto ace of the Tigers pitching staff. He is the only starting pitcher the Tigers have who can reliably get through games. He is talented enough that there could very well be a Cy Young Award in his future to sit next to his AL Rookie of the Year Award from 2016.
In a mere two seasons with the Tigers he has a career ERA of 3.45, a 3.71 FIP, and a 1.14 WHIP. He averages 6.8 strike outs per nine innings and has a 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. We’re not talking Hall of Fame stuff yet, but these are certainly impressive results for the 24-year-old All-Star.
Fulmer looks to improve further as he logs more innings, provided the ulnar nerve transposition surgery he had at the end of 2017 helps relieve the finger numbness issues he was experiencing. He is anticipated to be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland in February.
Fulmer is young, and his contract is incredibly cheap. He will once again make the league minimum this year, is not arbitration eligible until after next season, and isn’t a free agent until 2023. The Tigers have him locked down precisely for the time frame they need him. For a team that might hope to compete again by 2020 or 2021, they should want Michael Fulmer leading off every fifth game. His contract isn’t taxing the team’s budget, he has yet to reach his full potential, and he is under control for several more years. Why wouldn’t they keep him?
Of course, those hungry for more prospect depth want to know what someone like Fulmer can bring in return. Trading him could net the kind of talent to really make the Tigers' farm a force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to see the appeal of adding two or three potential future aces or top 30 position player prospects to the team. The issue with this, however, is that every prospect is a gamble. There’s always the risk they will never rise to the occasion and become a star MLB player. Most won’t.
Fulmer is a prospect who has already paid off. He has only been in the majors for two seasons and is already one of the top arms in the game, which certainly makes him appealing to teams who need starting pitchers. But the Tigers already have him. They have precisely the thing they hope their prospects will become. Trading him in hopes that he will bring more of the same is a risky gambit.
The Tigers would be foolish not to listen to offers, because Al Avila needs to be willing to listen to any trade suggestion that comes his way. However, trading Fulmer shouldn’t be seriously considered unless the returning talent is already knocking on MLB’s door, ready to go. If the team really wants to rebuild, then they can’t pull out a load-bearing beam and prop it up on two-by-fours and then hope the building will remain remainstanding. The Tigers need to be blown away by an offer before they even consider parting with Fulmer.