By: Will Burchfield
Even as the Tigers are embarking on a rebuild, the crown jewel of the organization has been brought up in trade rumors.
Could it possibly behoove the Tigers to deal 24-year-old Michael Fulmer?
Such chatter was triggered by a report from Peter Gammons last Friday that the Cubs, once thought to be pursuing Justin Verlander, are instead interested in Fulmer and Daniel Norris. Joel Sherman of the New York Post added to the intrigue on Sunday when he suggested the Tigers could get more in return for Fulmer than the White Sox got last winter for Chris Sale.
Sale, if you remember, netted the White Sox four prospects, including two of the top-ranked ones in baseball in second baseman Yoan Moncada and pitcher Michael Kopech.
Moncada came in at No. 1 and Kopech came in at No. 20 in Baseball America’s midseason prospect ranking.
The White Sox also acquired outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe and pitcher Victor Diaz. Basabe is the eighth-ranked prospect in Chicago’s organization, according to Baseball America.
That’s quite the bounty all together.
According to Sherman, the absence of elite starting pitchers in this year’s trade market could allow the Tigers to demand even more for Fulmer. And he argues the organization should consider dealing him, given its diminished farm system and the fact that Fulmer’s prime years are likely to coincide with a rebuild.
It bears mention that Sherman said “there is absolutely no indication whatsoever” that the Tigers are willing to trade Fulmer.
But there is some substance to the idea that Fulmer could bring back more than Sale.
Sale’s value, obviously, was built on his ability. Over five seasons as a White Sox starter, he recorded a 3.06 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. He finished top five in A.L. Cy Young voting four times. At the time of the trade, he had proven himself — hands down — as one of the best pitchers in baseball.
But his sky-high value was also a product of his age and his contract. Sale was 27 years old and controllable through 2019 when the Red Sox acquired him. He’s owed just $12 million this season, and his contract carries extremely club-friendly options of $12.5 million in 2018 and $15 million in 2019. Boston will pick those up in a heartbeat.
Sale isn’t just good — he’s a bargain.
The same can be said of Fulmer.
Start with the numbers. Though he obviously doesn’t have the track record of Sale, Fulmer has a 3.11 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP over parts of two seasons in the majors. He was the A.L. Rookie of the Year in 2016, when he matched Sale in the WAR department (4.9). Sample size notwithstanding, Fulmer has established himself as one of baseball’s best young players.
He is making just over league minimum this season — $551,900. He won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2019. Even then, he won’t hit unrestricted free agency until 2023, unless, of course, he signs a long-term extension before then. Fulmer is the dream asset for any team.
That’s why, as Sherman suggests, he would draw interest from more than just contenders should the Tigers make the 24-year-old available.
“Clubs with deep farm systems such as Atlanta and Philadelphia would be in, and contenders with deep systems such as the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers might make overwhelming offers to get their hands on this kind of starter,” Sherman writes.
He adds, “There is a window right now — with the lack of high-end starting available — that could make this an ideal time to sell extremely high.”
The Tigers need to deepen their farm system, especially in regard to position players. Their roster is crowded with overpaid veterans. Fulmer could help them address both issues at once. Might a big-market team be willing to offer up some prospects and take on a cumbersome contract in exchange for one of the most valuable young arms in baseball?
It’s all a little bit backward. In setting out on a rebuild, the Tigers are looking for assets precisely like Fulmer — maybe trading him is just the way to kickstart it.