At the moment, the Yankees bullpen sits in an interesting position. They were a top tier unit in 2022, as they ranked fifth in the league with 6.0 fWAR, and the team’s most important relievers — Michael King, Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Wandy Peralta — are all returning. That said, question marks abound. Can Loáisiga and Holmes avoid the rough stretches they had in the first and second halves, respectively? Can King, Ron Marinaccio, and Clarke Schmidt repeat their performances?
The Yankees have tried to instill a little stability in their bullpen by bringing back Tommy Kahnle on a two-year deal earlier this winter, but another veteran arm wouldn’t be amiss. Might Michael Fulmer fit the bill?
Yankees fans might remember Fulmer as a starting pitcher with the Detroit Tigers who edged out Gary Sánchez for the 2016 Rookie of the Year Award. He spent two good years as a starter, posting a 3.45 ERA (127 ERA+) in 51 starts across 2016 and 2017 before a series of injuries — culminating in Tommy John surgery that ended his 2019 season before it began — had him finally moved to the bullpen in 2021. That has given his career a second wind, as he has accrued 2.0 fWAR as a reliever, tied with Adam Cimber for 28th most since the start of the 2021 season.
In some ways, Fulmer would represent a departure from the prototypical Yankees reliever. While he gets his share of strikeouts, his 22.1 percent strikeout rate would rank 10th among Yankees relievers with at least 20 innings last year, tied with Peralta and ahead of Loáisiga. His success comes not from the ability to fan batters, but by generating soft contact: his 36.8 hard hit percentage was in the 61st percentile, while his 4.4 barrel percentage was in the 91st. Although both would have been middle-of-the-pack in the Yankees bullpen, that’s more a testament to its strength, rather than Fulmer’s performance.
Fulmer has closing experience — he had 14 saves in 2021 and three last year — but he would most likely slot into the middle innings in the Bronx, as Holmes and Loáisiga project as the most likely candidates for the ninth. Based on his previous starting experience, he may be able to join King and Schmidt as multi-inning options, although it must be mentioned that both the Tigers and Twins primarily employed him as a one-inning reliever last year.
The Yankees have been linked to Fulmer in the past; they tried to acquire him as a starter back in 2018, but the Tigers’ asking price was deemed to be too high by the entire league. No reports linked him to the Yankees at the trade deadline after Michael King’s injury, as the organization opted instead to target relievers with multiple years of control (e.g. Lou Trivino, Scott Effross), and since he was a free agent this winter, Fulmer didn’t fit the bill.
Six months later, however, the circumstances have changed, and while there hasn’t really been any sign that the Yankees have been targeting relief help of late, they have had a history in recent years of acquiring veteran relievers in January and February to build up the floor of the bullpen (Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino in 2019, Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson in 2021), so bringing in someone like Fulmer wouldn’t be out of character for Brian Cashman.