DETROIT – The Tigers and Michael Fulmer went to Spring Training in February thinking the former AL Rookie of the Year and All-Star right-hander would be a midseason addition to the rotation. That now might change, not because of Fulmer’s timetable, but because of baseball season.
For the first time, manager Ron Gardenhire expressed some optimism that Fulmer might be ready on or close to the start of the season, depending on baseball’s timetable for a potential return.
“We were talking about him joining us halfway through the season maybe at best when we were in Spring Training,” Gardenhire told MLB Network Radio’s Jim Duquette and Jim Bowden on Sunday. “And now honestly, by the time we get back playing baseball, he could possibly be ready to go.”
It would be a potential wrinkle as the Tigers try to put together a pitching staff for what could be an abbreviated, but concentrated season. Major League Baseball has been on hold since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, but has been looking at potential options for a 2020 season.
Fulmer underwent Tommy John surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow just over a year ago. The Tigers planned around a typical timetable of 14-16 months before he could return to pitching in the Majors, placing his potential return likely around July.
Fulmer is one of the few big league players still working out at the Tigers’ Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., where he has progressed to throwing off a mound.
“He's doing great,” Gardenhire said. “Everything's feeling good -- his knee, his elbow. All the reports from my trainer, Doug Teter, talking to him all the time, everything’s just going super. He's a big strong kid and he's been through a lot and nobody wants to play baseball more than him.”
Even if Fulmer is physically prepared to pitch by the time baseball formulates a return, he’ll need to face hitters in something resembling a game situation. That could come in whatever form of Spring Training precedes a regular-season schedule.
Fulmer hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 15, 2018, when he faced just two batters in a start against Cleveland. He underwent surgery afterwards to repair the meniscus in his right knee, and was working his way back from that in Spring Training of 2019 when he was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his elbow.
The Tigers' rotation was all but set for this season by the time Spring Training was suspended a month ago, with Matthew Boyd fronting a group that includes Jordan Zimmermann, Ivan Nova, Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull. But nobody knows what rosters and schedules will look like in a potential 2020 season. If doubleheaders are needed to get in more games, a Fulmer return could be a big asset as another starting option.
While Gardenhire keeps tabs on players through Teter, pitching coach Rick Anderson and general manager Al Avila, he’s working on communicating directly with them.
“I talk to my coaches off and on, send emails back and forth, texts and all those things,” Gardenhire said. “And then with the players, once every couple weeks I'm going to do it. I've done it a couple times and I’m gonna do it again, get a few answers back, and some no answers. It is what it is. We're just trying to make the best of it as we possibly can and stay healthy.”