Spring Training results may not matter, but Spring Training performances matter, at least to a certain extent.
Carson Fulmer’s latest start on Wednesday — he walked three and allowed seven earned runs, including three home runs, in just 1 2/3 innings — qualifies as something that matters. The 24-year-old has now walked 10 and allowed seven home runs in just 6 2/3 innings this spring, and it’s safe to wonder whether the White Sox presumptive fifth starter heading into the spring may be destined for Triple-A with Opening Day two weeks away.
Fulmer’s performance thus far is such that it would raise an eyebrow if he were an established veteran. He’s not. The 2015 first-round pick had three promising starts in September of last season — two of which came against the two worst teams in the league, and the third against a Cleveland team with nothing to play for — and otherwise struggled. In 126 innings at Triple-A, he walked nearly five batters per nine, allowed 18 home runs, and finished with a 5.79 ERA.
And yet, there’s still always been hope. Despite the fact that Fulmer has never looked dominant in the minors, the White Sox rebuild meant that his advanced profile and strong September were enough for him to presumably warrant a rotation spot. But with all those negative factors taking shape, coupled with the presence of a seemingly healthy and effective Hector Santiago, that may not come to fruition.
For the short-term prospects of the 2018 White Sox and their Opening Day rotation this means very little, but the long-term plan for Fulmer is worth considering. Many scouts saw him as a reliever coming out of the draft, and he hasn’t exactly done much to change that mindset. From BP’s White Sox system write-up, in which he was listed as the team’s No. 10 prospect:
The Bad: The changeup isn’t much to write home about, leaving him overly dependent on throwing fastballs at the front hip of major-league lefties. The curve and cutter don’t seem as tight in the middle innings. The command profile is below-average, and he struggles to throw enough strikes. He’s a shorter, stockier righty with some effort in the delivery, so it all looks like a late-inning reliever on the bump.
This isn’t to say the White Sox are going to or should give up on Fulmer as a starter. The team’s track record for developing starting pitching is obviously strong, and while 24 and considered a quick-moving starter out of college, it’s possible that a prolonged stretch in the minors without promotion on the horizon will straighten him out. Here’s The Good:
The Good: Fulmer is one of those guys with The Good Stuff™. His fastball generally ranges from 91-95 as a starter, but mostly works at the upper end of that band and it has explosive arm-side movement. At its best he can dominate with just that pitch. Fulmer’s cutter can touch the low-90s and is a potential 7 with hard slider depth when it’s on. He also has an above-average curve that sits in the low-80s with tight 12-6 action. That’s three above-average or better pitches.
It’s certainly possible that Fulmer is a reliever, and if and when the White Sox make that call, it’s also possible he’s a very good reliever. The reality of Fulmer winding up a reliever isn’t as harsh when you consider that ranked ahead of him on the aforementioned Top 10 list are four other starting pitching prospects, and Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez also exist. You obviously want to have as many lottery tickets as possible when building a contention-level rotation, but not all of them are going to pan out, and if Fulmer develops into an elite reliever, well … there are worse outcomes (which are also possible, I guess).
I realize we’re talking about 6 2/3 innings here, but Fulmer’s 6 2/3 bad innings means a lot more than, say, an 0-for-something stretch by Jose Abreu. If the White Sox decide Fulmer needs more seasoning in Triple-A, it’s a logical outcome, and doesn’t mean the end of his prospects as a starting pitcher. But it’s clear, at the very least, that more works is needed before that decision is made.
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