Michael Fulmer joins winning team, but Detroit Tigers are stuck waiting for 2023

Detroit Free Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Fulmer sat on the couch inside the Detroit Tigers‘ clubhouse Tuesday and couldn’t help but check his phone for the latest trade rumors. His eyes repeatedly bounced from his phone to the MLB Network broadcast on a nearby TV to a few teammates in the vicinity.

“What are you still doing here?” Andrew Chafin, a fellow relief pitcher, asked Fulmer while walking to his locker.

About 20 minutes before the Tigers’ 6 p.m. team meeting, which coincided with the trade deadline, manager A.J. Hinch entered the clubhouse and tapped Fulmer on the shoulder. Everyone knew what was happening. Fulmer stepped into Hinch’s office, and general manager Al Avila was on the phone to deliver the news.

“Well, you’re not going far,” Hinch said.

Fulmer had been traded to the Minnesota Twins.

RECAPPING TRADE DEADLINE: Tigers neglect offense at MLB trade deadline, adding to pressure of offseason

HOW IT ALL WENT WRONG: Tigers weren’t supposed to be sellers at MLB trade deadline

“It was kind of quick, just saying bye to everybody and hugging all those guys,” said Fulmer, who becomes a free agent after the 2022 season and netted Double-A right-hander Sawyer Gipson-Long in return. “I packed my stuff and made the long hike over.”

The trade deadline Tuesday occurred in the middle of a three-game series between the Tigers and Twins at Target Field. Fulmer packed his baseball bag, loaded up his backpack and changed into street clothes. He then walked the tunnel underneath the concourse, switching from the visitor clubhouse to the home clubhouse.

The 29-year-old didn’t pitch Tuesday, but he tossed a scoreless sixth inning Wednesday. He struck out Eric Haase, who has more games with Fulmer (35) than any catcher besides James McCann (49), on three straight pitches.

“It was definitely different,” Fulmer said of Tuesday’s journey to a new clubhouse on the other side of the ballpark. “It happened so quick. I don’t think I even had time to think about it. Even during the game, I felt like my heart was still racing for no reason. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get in there because of all the emotions.”

Fulmer spent Tuesday’s game in the Twins’ bullpen, which is stationed directly above the Tigers’ bullpen. He chatted with fellow reliever Joe Jiménez, among others, during the early innings. Jiménez was teammates with Fulmer for several years and watched him transition from young starting pitcher to a veteran relief pitcher.

“We had a moment,” Jiménez said. “Other than Miggy (Miguel Cabrera), he’s the one that has been here the longest. But good for him. He went to a team that’s in first place in the (American League Central) division. He’s going to do good on that side.”

Along with changing roles, Fulmer worked through several injuries — and the emotions tied to those injuries — in Detroit. He underwent right knee surgery in September 2018 and Tommy John surgery in March 2019. His 10 starts in 2020 — a defacto rehab stint in which he was limited to three innings per outing — were a disaster, illustrated by his 8.78 ERA.

In 2021, Fulmer joined the bullpen.

“I love Michael,” Haase said. “He definitely influenced a lot of young guys in the bullpen. A lot of the bullpen success has to do with Michael, coming in those big situations and teaching those guys how to prepare. He had a good presence.”

With the 2021-22 Tigers, Fulmer reinvented himself as a high-leverage reliever. He posted a 3.06 ERA with 3.3 walks and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings across 109 innings in 93 games, tossing in 16 saves.

“I’ll always be thankful to Detroit,” Fulmer said. “I will always have a place in my heart for the fans, you guys (reporters), A.J., (pitching coach) Chris Fetter and (assistant pitching coach) Juan Nieves. Those guys saved my career last year by moving me to the bullpen. I don’t know if I would’ve held up as a starter at the time.”

FULMER TO TWINS: Tigers trade reliever Michael Fulmer to Minnesota Twins for pitching prospect

GROSSMAN TO BRAVES: Tigers trade Robbie Grossman to Atlanta Braves for left-hander Kris Anglin

The Tigers acquired Fulmer from the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline in exchange for outfielder Yoenis Céspedes. He made his MLB debut in 2016, won AL Rookie of the Year in 2016 and earned a spot in the All-Star Game in 2017.

Before Tuesday’s trade, Fulmer hadn’t played for any MLB team other than the Tigers.

Now, he’s pursuing his first postseason appearance with the Twins.

“I think it would have been a little easier if I didn’t have to just switch clubhouses and play these guys,” Fulmer said. “But you can’t let the emotions get the best of you right now. It is a business, but we’re all humans. I love those guys over there. It’s been a fun ride, but when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. I’m happy with this next chapter in my career.”

Those who stay will be…

Three relievers under team control into the future — Chafin, Jiménez and closer Gregory Soto — remained with the Tigers through Tuesday’s trade deadline. Avila said the offers for those pitchers “did not move the needle for us,” meaning the Tigers couldn’t get their interpretation of equal value in return.

“It’s not like we’re trying to move anybody, but if we can improve our major-league club, then we would certainly listen,” Avila said. “In that scenario, you would hope to be satisfied with being able to make a trade and being happy with what is being offered. And if you’re not, then you move on and you’re very happy to keep the players that you have.”

BEFORE IT HAPPENED: Tigers shouldn’t sell at trade deadline with Al Avila. He lacks the track record

Chafin signed a two-year, $13 million contract with the Tigers in March, but the 32-year-old has a player option after the 2022 season, meaning he can opt-out of his deal and become a free agent this offseason. He is owed $6 million this season and $7 million in 2023.

He has a 2.38 ERA with 10 walks and 41 strikeouts over 34 innings in 39 games in 2022.

“It’s always in the back of your head, leading up to something like that,” Chafin said. “There’s nothing you can do about it, so you sit back and wait. It’s kind of like sitting around waiting for Christmas. You never know what you’re going to get, but you got to wait for it.”

Jiménez can’t become a free agent until after the 2023 season but figures to make somewhere around $3 million in 2023 for his final year of arbitration eligiblity. In 2022, Jiménez is earning $1.79 million.

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” Jiménez said. “You hear a lot of stuff, but this is where I want to be. We’re going in the right direction, so we’re going to be good. I grew up here. This is my 10th year with the organization, so I know everybody, from the bottom to the top. I want to go to the playoffs and win with this group.”

The 27-year-old has a 2.85 ERA with eight walks and 57 strikeouts over 41 innings in 44 games this season. He boosted his strikeout rate from 27.1% in 2021 to 34.8% in 2022, along with bettering his walk rate from 16.7% to 4.9%.

Jiménez has played his entire professional career with the Tigers, signing as an undrafted free agent in June 2013 out of Puerto Rico.

“I think everything is going to connect,” Jiménez said. “We have a great group of guys here. Everybody wants the same thing. Things are not going our way this year, but every guys here has the mindset that we have to win.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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