MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Fulmer sat in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field for most of Tuesday afternoon, waiting to find out his destination. As a soon-to-be free agent, he knew he was about to be traded, but didn’t know where.
Little did he know that, barely an hour later, he’d be walking down the service tunnel at Target Field to the home clubhouse, donning Twins gear and getting ready to suit up against the only team he has known in his Major League career.
It was a surreal scene in what ended up being a relatively quiet Trade Deadline for Detroit. The Tigers traded Fulmer to Minnesota for Double-A right-hander Sawyer Gipson-Long.
Tigers get: RHP Sawyer Gipson-Long
Twins get: RHP Michael Fulmer
The 29-year-old Fulmer has spent his entire Major League career with the Tigers, who acquired him as the Mets pitching prospect at the 2015 Trade Deadline for Yoenis Céspedes. Fulmer made his MLB debut with the Tigers the following April as an injury fill-in for their rotation, and went on to win American League Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star the following summer before a series of surgeries — ulnar nerve transposition in 2017, right knee surgery in 2018, then Tommy John surgery — slowed his career path and eventually led him to a revival in relief.
Fulmer missed all of 2019, then was limited to three-inning starts in the shortened 2020 season. The arrival of Detroit’s top pitching prospects last year helped push Fulmer to the bullpen, where he became a formidable setup man and part-time closer. Fulmer racked up 14 saves last year, then 18 holds this season to go with a couple of saves.
Fulmer’s contract is up at year’s end, making his trade all but inevitable, something even he understood as he talked to reporters last week following what everybody figured was his final outing at Comerica Park as a Tiger. The return is a far cry from what teams were reportedly willing to offer the Tigers for Fulmer when he was a promising young starter five years ago, but it’s a pragmatic deal to add depth to Detroit’s farm system.
With both Fulmer and outfielder Robbie Grossman, who was traded to Atlanta on Monday night, the Tigers were motivated to get whatever they could rather than hold onto the players and let them walk in free agency. In Fulmer’s case, general manager Al Avila cited an abundance of relievers who entered the trade market in the days leading up to the Deadline as limiting their leverage.
“There were several teams looking for relievers,” Avila said, “but I will say that the market was flooded with relievers. I think there were more relievers [available] than buyers this time around, but [the Twins] were a team that came in a little bit later and we had them on the board this week with other clubs. It came down to the last day.”
Gipson-Long was the Twins’ sixth-round pick in the 2019 Draft out of Mercer University. After posting a 5-2 record and 1.99 ERA in 10 starts at High-A Cedar Rapids, he moved to Double-A Wichita. He’s 3-4 with a 7.17 ERA in eight games there, having allowed 30 runs on 46 hits over 37 2/3 innings, but has a 35-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“We have a pitcher there that we feel good about,” Avila said. “He’s a starter at Double-A right now. We all think he has a good mix of pitches where he has a chance to stay as a starter. We’re projecting him probably to go to Toledo next year and be a guy that we can count on at the big league level at some point.”
On other relievers with more years of control — closer Gregory Soto, lefty Andrew Chafin and righty Joe Jiménez — the Tigers ended up holding out for bigger returns. The Tigers were seeking a package of prospects for Soto, who has three more seasons after this year before free agency. Chafin’s opt-out in his two-year contract left some debate as to whether teams treated him like a rental player or more.
“There wasn’t as much conversation as I think the media made it out to be,” Avila said. “There were some. We just decided that the possible return that we talked about with some of those clubs just did not move the needle for us at this point.”
Avila acknowledged trade discussions on ace Tarik Skubal, who left Monday’s game with left arm fatigue and is being checked out for inflammation in his forearm. However, Avila said they never came close to a desired return to seriously consider an offer.
“We had several conversations. It’s not like we were calling teams and trying to push the issue,” Avila said. “But if the right deal were to be pursued, then we would have to have an open mind and look at it. And those conversations that we had, we just didn’t feel that the return would help us as much as we would like.”