Remember the 1985 Chicago Bears “Super Bowl Shuffle”? Well, the White Sox have a slightly different take on the classic tune – it’s called the “Rebuild Shuffle”.
The moves go like this: two steps forward, one step back, and then the White Sox talent gets reshuffled.
This past week, a big step back. White Sox pitcher Carson Fulmer was demoted, optioned to the AAA Charlotte Knights of the International League. The IL is a Triple-A level league where top baseball talent not quite ready for the Major Leagues go to hone their skills and get ready for their chance at the big time. Fulmer returns to the team a familiar face having pitched there the majority of his 2017 season.
This move represents a watershed moment in the rebuilding effort. It marks the first acknowledged step backward for one of their top prospects. For sure, there have been injury setbacks.
But those did not include the club telling the player to take a demotion. There will be more, and this one opens the door for those future recalculations. The two-word tweet announcement by James Fegan “Fulmer optioned” was brief in its immediate content, but it spoke volumes more in context of the rebuild. Not much more really needed to be said.
Seeing the look on Fulmer’s face after he was pulled from his Friday start was brutal and heartbreaking. He bore the look of someone profoundly disappointed. As for what he did, let’s look at what he didn’t do – which was put the ball over the plate with any consistency. His first 7 pitches were all out of the strike zone. He hit the first batter then threw 6 consecutive balls in starting to start the game. One need not dust off the history books to know that hitting the first batter in White Sox lore carries a really bad connotation.
As for what he did do, his expression said it all: he made himself no longer part of the current picture, and perhaps not an automatic component of the team’s future at all. Oh, he can turn things around at AAA Charlotte most definitely. And if he does the team will likely still need pitchers who can throw strikes and compete at the Major League level. But he’ll have to prove himself before getting that chance again; it won’t be automatic.
Justifiably, many fans felt perhaps that he didn’t have the kind of spring that warranted winning a spot in the rotation, and that perhaps he should have started the year in Charlotte. His results last year at AAA didn’t necessarily demonstrate mastery at that level, but his September starts put forth the argument that perhaps he was ready for the big leagues in spite of his results in Charlotte. His results this year suggest otherwise.
What does this mean for Fulmer? Standing at the dugout rail by himself after being pulled during that final start, feeling obviously alone and isolated, I wondered if he already knew what was to come. Perhaps the team gave him the straight story before the start – that if he couldn’t turn his performance around, a demotion to in his own words to “work on things” would be imminent.
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The demotion in itself isn’t a terrible thing. Happens to the best of Major Leaguers. However, in context, it begs the question, “Where does Fulmer now fit into the stank ranking of pitchers on the farm?” If he finds command of the strike zone again, which seems more likely than not, what does the team do? Where does he rank against Tyler Danish or Jordan Stephens? What about Dylan Covey (or Kopech, Cease, Dunning, Hansen…)? The answer is no longer certain.
My guess is the organization is still high on his talent but feels he needs a better structure to develop it. And before getting another chance in the big leagues he will need to demonstrate better command authoritatively in Charlotte.
The best thing Fulmer could do is take this in stride, not let it affect his approach and enthusiasm, and reinstate command of his pitches, especially the fastball. The worst thing he could do is get down on himself and become his own worst enemy. It would help to show some success in the International League, but first thing’s first: throw strikes. To be overly ambitious could potentially lead to similar results at AAA which would really not be good.
Fulmer’s approach and perspective, like his pitches, is entirely within his control.