There was a point in 2015 when just about everybody would have agreed that Carson Fulmer had what it took to be a very good starting pitcher in Major League Baseball.
After 127.2 dominant innings in his junior season at Vanderbilt, the Chicago White Sox selected him No. 8 overall in the 2015 MLB Amateur Entry Draft. From there, he went on to spend just an inning at rookie ball before uncorking 22 innings of high-quality work at High-A Winston-Salem.
At that point, it appeared clear that he had middle of the rotation possibilities at worst and top of the rotation potential at best. Sure, a scout might have desired to see him rework his delivery a little for sustainability or the organization may have encouraged him to further develop his pitch repertoire, but it was still almost universally assumed he had what it takes.
Of course, baseball doesn’t deal in certainties and Fulmer has run into problems — primarily control-related — since that dream season. And the White Sox’s optimism in him as a starting pitcher has been naive but understandable for at least the past two seasons now.
In 2016, Fulmer wasn’t necessarily horrible, splitting his first full season in professional baseball between Double-A and Triple-A and registering a 4.63 ERA through 103 minor-league innings. He still generated swings and misses to the tune of 104 strikeouts, but the control issued started to flare.
His walk-rate climbed from 3.52 BB/9 between college and the minors in 2015 to 4.89 BB/9 in the minors in 2016. Still, a live arm and general optimism that he could rein in the control earned him 11.2 innings with the White Sox in the summer.
There, overpowering stuff that hitters hadn’t before seen should have made him an asset to the Major League bullpen. Instead, he continued to struggle and was sent back down, finishing the year in Charlotte.
That was okay, though. He was only 22 years old, and some course corrections still offered him a chance to realize his potential.
However, 2017 is probably where the White Sox began misplacing their optimism. Fulmer was extremely bad in Charlotte. The control continued to be an issue, and a lack of faith in his secondary offerings coupled with some velocity tapering made it difficult for him to miss bats.
The end result was 5.79 ERA in 126 innings. But with the White Sox committing to a rebuild, it still made sense to give Fulmer an extended taste of the big leagues. He was part of their September call-ups, where some unsustainable numbers seemed to give the organization the wrong impression.
Fulmer had a 3.86 ERA through 23 innings, and the White Sox seemed to convince themselves that was a glimmer of hope that his starting potential was still salvageable. However, that was buoyed by remarkably unreliable .190 BABIP, and he walked 13 while striking out just 19 during that stint.
Yet, the following spring when all the issues that had plagued Fulmer for two full professional seasons were possibly at their ugliest in Major League camp, the White Sox repeatedly stressed that they cared more about the previous September’s results than what was happening in front of them. So it shouldn’t have been surprising at all when the wheels continued to fall off through the first two months.
Ultimately, Fulmer was demoted earlier this week. The organization was forced to acknowledge that it was no longer in their, or his, best interest for him to have any confidence he might have left pounded into oblivion against big-league hitting.
But they’re insistent that he’s still a starter.
Fulmer is 24, so it’s understandable that they’re not giving up on a former top-10 pick. However, the reality that the White Sox pitching rotation is going to be overcrowded soon is rapidly approaching.
Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez have shown enough to earn a place in the organization’s plans moving forward. Michael Kopech is as close to ready as you can be. Carlos Rodon is making his rehab starts now. Dane Dunning has impressed. Dylan Cease is probably due for a promotion to Double-A Birmingham. There are at least another half-dozen names who could threaten in the next two or three seasons for starts.
Sure, it’s possible that Fulmer can find the right formula. A subtle delivery change he can quickly become comfortable with allows him to throw more strikes and get back to throwing his curveball confidently (his best swing-and-miss pitch).
The other two options: either a complete mechanical overhaul that could take years to complete or a move to the bullpen where he can dial his velocity and intensity back up. In the bullpen, he’d obviously still need to throw more strikes, but the path to a long and successful career is certainly more viable than a rebuild that will lead to him being passed by all the other big arms and more artful throwers in the system.
You can’t exactly blame the White Sox for holding out hope. And the good news is that at this stage of the rebuild, being overly optimistic about a former top-10 prospect doesn’t truly cost them.
Yes, it’s embarrassing to watch a team that is threatening to lose 110 games or more and Fulmer getting pelted start after start isn’t fun to watch. But if there is a chance he could find himself, it was worth exploring.
Soon a more sobering reality will approach. A decision will have to be made. For now, they can afford to be naive for a little while longer.