By: Chris Larson
As expected heading into this season, the Detroit Tigers currently have a record under 500 (30-35) in baseball's weakest division. Even with that poor record, given the weakness of the AL Central, the Tigers are currently in second place and 5 games back from first with a -26 run differential.
While they haven't necessarily buried themselves, it doesn't appear as though they are in a position to contend this season meaning that they will likely continue to be sellers come the trade deadline. When you look at the Tigers on paper, they don't necessarily hold a lot of trade chips outside of reliever Shane Greene, catcher James McCann, and their biggest chip, starting pitcher, Michael Fulmer.
Fulmer has been long mentioned in trade rumors dating back to the trade deadline last July as well as all of last offseason. It shouldn't come as a surprise because teams are always on the lookout for starting pitching and with Fulmer's track record, of course he will be on team's wish lists. After all, Fulmer won AL Rookie of the Year just two years ago and since making his MLB debut, he has a 3.62 ERA over 397.1 innings of work with a 1.17 WHIP and a strikeouts-per-9 rate of 7.0.
Certainly not the most elite stats for a starting pitcher ever or stats that put him in the same category as Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, or Chris Sale, but effective enough to potentially bring back a haul to the Detroit Tigers which begs the question: When is the right time to trade Fulmer? Definitely not an easy question to answer, but there could be an argument made, that the right time might have already passed by for the Tigers.
Granted, Michael Fulmer is 25 years old this year and could always be a candidate to benefit from a change of scenery, but so far this season, he has a 4.40 ERA over 73.2 IP. During that span, he has recorded 36 earned runs, given up 9 home runs and 27 walks, and struck out 62 batters. Digging a little deeper, Fulmer finished the month of May with a 6.32 ERA over 31.1 IP, but has bounced back a bit so far through 2 starts this month, with a 3.46 ERA over 13.0 IP.
Looking back at last year, Michael Fulmer finished the season with a 3.83 ERA over 164.2 innings of work and gave up 70 earned runs along with 13 home runs and 40 walks to the 676 batters he faced. In addition, Fulmer had a career low home runs-per-9 rate of 0.7 last season and a 3.67 FIP. That means that if Fulmer isn't able to somehow find a way to lower his ERA back down, the window for the best return for the Tigers might have already passed.
Sure, Fulmer is under team control through 2023, which is significant because that adds a ton of value into the package as well, but team's also want to see the results of the pitcher they are trading for or essentially buying off the market. If a team is interested in Fulmer and scouted him throughout the month of May, no one is going to be willing to part with top prospects in any deal because his ERA was over 6 and that could make some contending teams concerned.
With that being said, if Michael Fulmer is able to put up very good numbers this month and next, then the Tigers might be able to once again capitalize on the market and get a return back that helps speed up their rebuild process. It's a delicate question because you have to believe that Fulmer is still in his peak at 25 years of age, but you also have to pay attention to the stats at a deeper level, because those are the ones that teams and their scouts are going to be looking at. No longer are trades based solely on wins and losses or a pitchers ERA. Now, analytics are involved which brings WHIP, Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP), strikeouts-per-9, Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and all of those good things, into the equation.
Assuming that Michael Fulmer does return to form over the next month-and-half leading up to the trade deadline on July 31st, you can already start to identify who his potential suitors could be. Of course, the New York Yankees should be first in the discussion because they are going to be looking for another starter to bolster their so-far unimpressive starting rotation. However, Fulmer might be on the same level as Sonny Gray, which suggests that he would probably slot into the 3 or 4 hole and wouldn't be that significant of an upgrade. The Yankees will likely have Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka (assuming he's healthy), in the first three spots, followed up by Sonny Gray and whoever they chose to acquire whether it be Michael Fulmer, Chris Archer, Cole Hamels, or someone that no one is even talking about.
Other potential landing spots include the Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks. The last two on the list might be a bit of a stretch because the Red Sox are already at the luxury tax cap and the Diamondbacks have had good results from their starting rotation so far, but Fulmer could help improve both team's chances at playing deep into the postseason (assuming both clinch a postseason berth) especially if he can return to form and put up numbers like he did during his rookie season in 2016.
As we all know, the Brewers could benefit from adding another starter as we saw last year when they had a lead in the NL Central and later saw that lead dissolve as the Cubs overtook them. Furthermore, both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies could use assurance within their starting rotations which feature young arms. We still haven't seen how both teams young arms are going to do later on down the stretch during the dog days of summer in August and September so adding Fulmer would be a safety net for both organizations.
Regardless, the demand is going to be there for starting pitching come July and Michael Fulmer should be heavily sought after, but the Tigers have to hope he stays healthy and continues to put up impressive numbers for the best possible return. If he doesn't, then the Tigers might have missed their window on getting the best return possible this past offseason, which could end up delaying their rebuild even more.