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Carson Fulmer carries Charlotte struggles to Chicago

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Ugly start shows why his future appears to be in the bullpen

MLB: Game Two-Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Carson Fulmer wasn’t the White Sox’ first idea for a doubleheader start on Monday.

Plan A called for Lucas Giolito starting on normal rest, then bringing him back to round out the rotation in five days’ time. Then Reynaldo Lopez hit the disabled list, which made a rotation spot something to fill rather than create, so Giolito shifted to Tuesday. That left the Sox needing somebody to pitch Monday.

That need for somebody often finds minor leaguers before they may be ready. Chris Beck and Tyler Danish made their one and only MLB starts under similar circumstances -- Beck against Baltimore in 2015, and Danish against Detroit back in May. Then again, both were pitching better at the time their starts than Fulmer, and it showed. Danish actually picked up his first MLB win; Beck gave the Sox six innings despite poor support.

Fulmer didn’t come close against Minnesota. Even with the head start of a seven-pitch 1-2-3 first, Fulmer couldn’t get out of the second. He gave up a pair of three-run homers, and was set up for a third when Rick Renteria removed him from a game. Dylan Covey spared Fulmer’s line further damage by getting a double play with the inherited runners on the corners.

I was surprised to see so much second-guessing since calling up the Triple-A starter is a standard-issue move, but covering four outs is the kind of outcome that engenders it. The Sox ended up deploying the other option — a Covey-fueled bullpen game — despite Fulmer’s presence, so maybe it wasn’t worth the embarrassment.

But what this post presupposes is ... maybe it was?

A lot of Fulmer’s professional career has been tug of war, whether it’s his mechanics, his development track or, relevant to Monday, his role. In 2016, he was challenged by an aggressive Double-A assignment combined with an attempt to find more a more repeatable delivery, and that was before the White Sox came calling, hoping he might be a quick study and give the bullpen some strikeouts. That didn’t work, and so he returned to the minors, but to Charlotte, where he actually finished the season in fine form.

He started the season that way, too. Between his last three starts of 2016 and his first seven starts of 2017, Fulmer was 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA. The peripherals didn’t paint an overpowering pitcher — 59 baserunners, 47 strikeouts over 54 23 innings -- but one who had room to regress.

Fulmer ran out of room before his start with the White Sox, as he posted a 7.00 ERA over his next 17 starts at Charlotte with the underlying numbers to match. The call-up made his struggles easier to comprehend for the viewers at home. He couldn’t set up hitters with the fastball, either falling behind or missing by a plate. He only got one swinging strike out of 49 pitches, and only threw seven curves because of the count issues.

The last part is what makes me think a move to the bullpen would be a boost. Maybe he’d gain a couple ticks on his fastball, but even if he worked at 94-95 like he did on Monday, the bigger past would be throwing his curve without having to save sequences for later.

Sooner is probably better than later, and that’s with Fulmer’s age (still just 23) and the Sox’ win curve (2020, probably) in mind.

Fulmer wants to prove people wrong, and that mindset makes him endearing to the White Sox. I’ve talked to Fulmer before, and James Fegan sums up the experience well:

Carson Fulmer is a nice guy. Many people around the White Sox say this, with a uniformity that can’t help but attract some natural suspicion. But I’ve spoken with him enough times to know it’s real. Kind and courteous, firm handshake, thoughtful answers about where he’s at and what he’s working on with his game, in good times and bad.

At the same time, Fulmer will tell you in a nice, kind, courteous, firm and thoughtful way that he wants to start, and his demeanor around the mound shows that his directness can have an edge when challenged. The channeling is reminiscent of another Lakeland, Fla., native, although maybe not to the extremes.

Yet the compromises involved in attempting to make him a starter — shaping his fastball, finding a tempo suitable to a repeatable delivery — appear quixotic. On Monday, the combination led to him throwing his worse pitches in the worst places.

Even if Fulmer’s pitching has provided an answer, the question can be more thoroughly entertained after the season. For instance, Giolito will make his White Sox debut tonight, and he’s somebody who should be able to stick as some sort of starter. Reynaldo Lopez should have several starts in him once he returns from the DL, and we’ll have a better idea of how his stuff holds up in the middle innings.

If they nail their auditions well enough, a shift to the bullpen becomes what’s best for the team, and maybe that allows everybody to accept what is also best for Fulmer.