Fulmer's spring story recalls '06 Zumaya debate

Fulmer's spring story recalls '06 Zumaya debate

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The motto from Jim Leyland still resonates around Tigertown: "Give me talent. You can have experience."

It's the philosophy the former Tigers manager cited here 10 years ago when he took a hard-throwing Minor League starter named Joel Zumaya out of camp and put him in the Detroit bullpen for Opening Day.

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"Not only is Zumaya going to pitch on this team," Leyland said when he made the announcement near the end of camp in 2006, "I think he's going to pitch in some huge situations."

It's a philosophy that could soon get another test with current Tigers top prospect Michael Fulmer.

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"Nothing has been decided on Fulmer definitively at this point," manager Brad Ausmus said Saturday morning before the Tigers' 3-0 win over the Pirates.

As smart as Leyland's decision looks in hindsight, given how dominant Zumaya pitched for Detroit in 2006, it was a debate for most of that spring. Zumaya was a starter all the way up through the Minors, and he competed that spring with fellow top prospect Justin Verlander for a rotation spot. Zumaya gave up nine earned runs in 13 2/3 innings that spring, but had appearances where he flat-out overpowered Major League hitters. More important to Leyland, he looked unaffected by the pressure.

Once Verlander won the rotation spot, the Tigers had to decide whether to start Zumaya at Triple-A Toledo, having him ready in case of injury, or put him in their bullpen. In the end, Leyland said at the time, he and Verlander were two of their 12 best pitchers.

"I talked to the coaches and I talked to [then-president/general manager] Dave [Dombrowski]," Leyland said at the time. "It was a unanimous decision. Nobody had any reservations."

Fast forward to Fulmer, who made his first start of the spring Friday after two appearances in relief. He gave up three runs on one hit and three walks in one inning against the Astros, but also showed he could get outs with his changeup on a day when he didn't have his slider working.

Fulmer will continue to stretch out as a starter. As GM Al Avila told reporters Thursday, the Tigers' depth in relievers in camp gives them options.

"Right now, it's in his best interest even to be a starter, because the development process is better when you're a starter," Avila said. "You have more chances to throw more of your pitches. Just for his sake alone, it's better for him to be a starter right now."

However, Ausmus cautioned, that doesn't mean he's out of consideration as a reliever. The fact that Fulmer remains in camp after the first round of cuts reinforces that. With Daniel Norris and Shane Greene both stretching out as starters, Ausmus has downplayed Fulmer's chances of winning the open fifth-starter spot.

"He needs to be stretched out somewhat, in the event that he does become a starter in Toledo," Ausmus said, "because it's easier to work backwards [on pitch count] than it is to work forwards."

Fulmer, for his part, said he's fine starting or relieving.

"Obviously, the one goal is to get to the big leagues, and that's anyway, anyhow," he said Friday. "So whatever the team needs me to do, I'm going to do with it, whether it's to develop more or put me in there. Doesn't matter."

For now, the discussion will roll on. Much like Zumaya in 2006, it could shape up to be the most interesting debate of camp.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.