Through the first half of the season, one of the reasons people were unsure about the direction and timeline of the Phillies’ rebuild was the struggles of the starting rotation.
Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez were all either injured or ineffective. Or both.
But in recent weeks, the rotation has started to come around. Velasquez had an encouraging start coming off the disabled list, and Eickhoff has had one good start and one bad start since the end of his DL stint.
Of course, the recent stretch of brilliance by Aaron Nola has Phillies fans breathing a lot easier about the very top of the rotation. He’s been pitching like a true ace, a thing no one really thought the team had right now. But the numbers tell a different story.
Nevertheless, one of the areas in which the Phillies could improve over the nine days before the trade deadline is the starting rotation. Specifically, they could try to target a young, controllable arm with a top-of-the-rotation pedigree in exchange for taking on the bad contract of another player on that team.
That’s where Michael Fulmer and the Detroit Tigers come into play.
Fulmer was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2016 when he went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.76 FIP in 159 innings. This season has been more of the same, with a 3.35 ERA in 19 starts (126 1⁄3 IP). He was worth 3.0 fWAR last year and is already at 3.2 fWAR this season, with a FIP of 3.34.
The Tigers are 44-51 and are not a contender in the American League. They also feature an aging, bloated roster that needs to both shed payroll and add some quality talent into their farm system. Before the season, Baseball America ranked Detroit’s system 25th out of 30 teams.
Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported this week that the Phils were a “sneaky aggressive” team that was interested in adding starting pitching.
At 32-61, the Philadelphia Phillies are the worst team in baseball by 3½ games. They still have poked around on controllable starting pitchers, according to sources, even as they look to deal pending free agents Hellickson, relievers Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, and second baseman Howie Kendrick.
If they were to delve into the starting market, they would want someone young and under team control for a long time. Fulmer is 24 and can’t become a free agent until 2023. Although he’s not a strikeout guy (6.97 K/9 through his first two seasons), he generates a ton of ground ball outs (49.3% in his career) and has held opponents to a .231 average in his first two seasons.
Of course, the Tigers would be crazy to trade away one of the few bright young stars they have, unless they were able to shed payroll somewhere else on the roster and gain some promising prospects at the same time.
Guys like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Justin Upton probably aren’t going anywhere. But there are a couple players who Detroit may want off their books, and the Phillies could eat that salary as part of any Fulmer deal.
Their designated hitter, Victor Martinez, is owed another $18 million next season, the last year on his current deal. He’ll be 39 next year and can’t really play in the field, so it’s possible the Phils could take him and his salary on and release him soon thereafter. Anibal Sanchez is owed $16 million next season, the final year of his deal. And Ian Kinsler is due to make $10 million in 2018, also the final year of his deal.
The hardest contract to eat, and the one Detroit would most likely include in a Fulmer deal, is Jordan Zimmermann, who is owed $74 million for another three seasons starting in 2018. The former Washington right-hander has struggled mightily since joining Detroit. His strikeout stuff is gone (6.55 K/9 this season) and his ERA the last two years is 4.87 and 5.58.
Zimmermann may not fit into the Phils’ rotation plans next year or any other year, but they could conceivably DFA him if they were OK eating that much of his salary. Of course, that would be a lot to ask, but if the Phillies really like Fulmer, it may be worth the price. They could simply look at it as paying Zimmermann’s salary for Fulmer, who is going to make peanuts over the next couple seasons.
The point is, Detroit has a lot of aging players on their roster making a lot of money. If they want to free up some cash and replenish a below average farm system to start a rebuild of their own, they may have to trade Fulmer to do it.
Which could work out perfectly for the Phillies and their timeline.