LAKELAND, Fla. -- At this time last year, Michael Fulmer was hoping for a healthier 2019. Instead, his injury woes went from bad to worse.
Fulmer needed Tommy John surgery and did not pitch at all last season, another setback for the right-hander who won AL Rookie of the Year honors for Detroit in 2016 but now faces an uncertain future for the Tigers. Still just 26 years old, Fulmer can give the team a lift if he comes back healthy, but that's still a work in progress.
"I feel better than I thought I would at this point, playing catch out to 120 feet," Fulmer said this week. "Next progression is getting on the mound. Very anxious for that moment, but we've got to wait until it gets here."
Fulmer said he was hopeful he could throw on the mound around the end of March, perhaps before the team heads north.
Fulmer went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 2016, his debut season in the majors. He was fairly solid again the following year, but since then, he's had one problem after another. Oblique and knee injuries limited Fulmer in 2018, when his ERA rose to 4.69. He was hoping he had put those issues in the past at spring training last year, but he ended up facing an even longer recovery after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
"It took seven months without picking up a baseball, which is probably the longest time I haven't touched a baseball since I was probably 4 years old," he said. "Tommy John's just a different animal. You start playing catch again, and you're three, four weeks at one distance, throwing-wise. Then you're getting moved up and then you're excited, then there's three, four weeks of that distance, and so on."
Fulmer says he can understand why some other pitchers have been able to bounce back so well from this operation -- the rehab process is extensive. But it's not easy being at spring training when you can't pitch yet.
"You can never get inside somebody's head. All you can do is listen to them talk. He handles it very, very well," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'm sure he's very frustrated. He wants to be out there doing all those things with all the guys, but through all this, he's probably learned a little bit of patience, knowing when you try to rush it, it doesn't really work out too well."
The rebuilding Tigers are approaching a period of transition with their rotation. Three of their top prospects are starting pitchers, and although Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal aren't expected to begin the season in Detroit, their progress will be a big story in 2020.
Meanwhile, Matthew Boyd is the clear leader of the major league staff after striking out 238 hitters last year. Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris are also in the mix -- as is Fulmer. This season could go a long way in determining who fits into Detroit's long-term plans on the mound.
So the sooner Fulmer can return and show what he can do, the better for everyone involved.
"He's got to let everybody -- smart guys, the medical people -- get him into where he's supposed to be," Gardenhire said. "Then we see how he is halfway through the year."
In the meantime, Fulmer has a chance to be something of a mentor to those highly touted prospects at spring training. If any of them can handle the transition to the majors as well as Fulmer did in 2016, the Tigers will be quite pleased.
"We were all 20, 21 years old once. It's tough," Fulmer said. "Those guys, they're keeping their head down, they're putting in the work. I'm excited to see what they have this spring training. I'll be watching a little closer, since I don't have much to do now."
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