Michael Fulmer injury a gut punch for Detroit Tigers. Bring up Casey Mize?

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

On Monday morning, I was talking with Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila.

“Are you concerned about Michael Fulmer?” I asked.

Fulmer, one of the Tigers' pitchers, had been struggling with a knee injury.

“It’s a process,” Avila said. “It’s his third knee surgery, and it’s a process about him being able to bounce back from that and feeling good about his mechanics. So it’s a process. Yeah, we are concerned. At the same time, we are hopeful that he can come back.”

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer throws a pitch during the first inning on Monday, March 4, 2019, in Lakeland, Fla.

This was around 11:30 a.m.

About 24 hours later, the Tigers announced Fulmer was advised by Dr. James Andrews to have Tommy John surgery on his elbow, which would end his season. Fulmer is seeking a third opinion.

What the heck?

I was in an airport on Tuesday, on my way from spring training in Lakeland, Florida, to Iowa to cover March Madness, when my editor called with the news.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” I said

I spent quite a bit of time with Fulmer on Saturday night at a fundraiser for Matthew Boyd’s nonprofit, Kingdom Home. Fulmer looked fine. He swung a golf club and seemed so happy. On Monday morning, I talked to Fulmer in the clubhouse with other reporters. He seemed so optimistic, even though his knee was swollen from a workout on Sunday.

“I could pitch in a game in three days, I don’t know,” he said. “It depends on how it feels.

"It’s literally so day to day.”

He was asked about the rest of his body, and he said he felt fine.

And then, this? Stunning.

On a personal level, I feel for Fulmer. He’s a tremendous player, who has faced nothing but frustration and disappointment trying to come back from from knee surgery.

Fulmer had surgery in September and has spent four months in Lakeland, trying to get healthy.

“It’s tough,” he said Monday, about his knee. “It sucks. But we are trying to get there. If I have to miss any time, I’d rather miss two months now than two months later.”

And now, this?

This is beyond a gut punch. For both Fulmer and the Tigers.

Why not Casey Mize?

So what should the Tigers do?

There are plenty options to replace Fulmer in the starting rotation, from right-hander Spencer Turnbull to lefty Daniel Norris.

Even Kyle Funkhouser, a promising player who split time in Toledo and Erie last season, could give this team starting depth.

But why can’t the Tigers make a really bold move?

Why can’t they just bring up one of their younger studs?

Tigers pitcher Casey Mize pitches during batting practice during spring training on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.

Like Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in June's MLB draft? 

“When is a realistic time frame for Casey Mize?” I asked Avila on Monday.

“We are starting on that already?” he asked.

There was a pause.

“Well, Casey Mize, I guess, realistically, the most important thing, people have to understand, we have to build up a pitcher’s innings,” Avila said. “When he gets to the big leagues, you don’t want to worry: ‘Oh, I have to shut him down. He’s pitched too much.’

“In the minor leagues, you can go at your own pace. You give them 30 percent increases (every season) in innings. A lot depends on health, the stress of the innings he’s pitched. You have to build him up.”

To be clear, I am not advocating for Mize to move up. But I think it’s a question many fans will ask:

Why not Mize?

So here is the answer, from Avila:

“In Casey’s case, can he pitch right now in the big leagues with his stuff? Sure he can. There are a lot of guys you can say that about, whether it’s a hitter or pitcher. But that’s what the minor leagues are for, to increase his work flow at a pace where we are comfortable with.”

Mize turns22 on May 1.  He got a taste of professional baseball last summer, pitching in five minor league games, and was praised for his work in spring training this year (he was sent to the minors on March 5). 

Mize is just about the same age Justin Verlander was, when he made his debut in Detroit. Verlander was drafted in the first round in 2004. After Verlander pitched one season of minor-league ball in 2005, he finished the year in Detroit, pitching in two games when he was 22. And he pitched his first full season the next year at age 23.

“As you go through those increase in innings, you want him at a competitive level, where he’s not over taxed and over stressed,” Avila said, of Mize.  “That’s all part of development to where, all of a sudden, if you throw him into the major-league level without that process you are just inviting either failure or injury. So it’s really fool hearty to say he’s going to go right now.”

Yes, at this time, in the wake of this news, nobody wants to put a young arm at risk. Especially when the Tigers are so far off from being competitive.

If Fulmer would have been healthy, he could have been on the trading block this summer. But now, that opportunity is gone and his value decreases.

And that’s probably the cautionary tale, when you think about all of these young arms in the Tigers’ system.

One day they can be fine.

The next day, they are talking to Dr. James Andrews.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.