As a pitcher who was selected in the first round by the White Sox out of Vanderbilt University, Carson Fulmer is a man on two potential paths, both with the same exciting destination.
First, there's the reputation Vanderbilt has built as an institution for arms. Since 2007, when left-hander David Price became the first No. 1 overall pick in program history, the Commodores have seen nine players taken in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft, including three last June (Fulmer, Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler). Seven of the nine have been pitchers, and Price and Sonny Gray finished second and third to Houston's Dallas Keuchel in last year's American League Cy Young voting. It's as a good pipeline as you can find in the recent college game.
Fulmer, a 15th-round pick by the Red Sox in 2012, took advantage during his three seasons in Nashville. After coming out of the bullpen for 26 games during his freshman season in 2013, he morphed into a starter as a sophomore, using advice from Gray -- then three years removed from college -- to work on his mechanics. Since he's been a pitcher, the right-hander has shown a lot of movement in his delivery, and with Gray's help, he focused on "presetting my foot and staying on line."
With those changes locked in, he was trustworthy enough to be given the start on only three days' rest in the deciding game of the best-of-3 College World Series with Vanderbilt's first national title on the line. He didn't factor into the decision, but gave up two runs (one earned) over 5 1/3 innings in the eventual 3-2 win over Virginia.
Last spring, the ascension of Fulmer was complete. As a junior, he was the Commodores' Friday (aka No. 1) starter and backed up that responsibility by going 14-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings, thanks to a low- to mid-90's fastball, plus a curveball and a decent changeup. With those numbers and scouting reports, it came as no surprise when the White Sox grabbed him with the eighth overall pick early in June.
Vanderbilt trusted him with another World Series start, again against Virginia, in the first game of the Championship Series. Fulmer blew past the Cavaliers, allowing just two hits while striking out eight and walking two in 7 2/3 scoreless innings of a 5-1 Game 1 win. White Sox director of player development Nick Capra was in attendance and suitably impressed by that first live look in Omaha.
"He had total command of the fastball, the curveball, the changeup to both sides of the plate," Capra said, "and he was very much a competitor. You could see he was really getting after it on the mound. The important part was that his velocity was maintaining throughout the game too, right through the later innings."
On July 3, the White Sox announced they had signed Fulmer for a full-slot $3,470,600 signing bonus. And with that, the collegiate portion of Fulmer's Vanderbilt path was completed.
By being picked by the White Sox, another path opened up for the right-hander. Prior to Fulmer, the South Siders had used two of their first-round picks this decade on collegiate pitchers: Chris Sale in 2010 and Carlos Rodon in 2014. In those cases, both left-handers were in the Major Leagues within a year of their Draft date. (Sale was indeed up in the Majors less than two months after being picked 13th overall.) That was especially enticing for Fulmer.
"I know I'm obviously in a great position here with the way they've handled that kind of stuff in the past," he said. "My main goal is to win, and I can tell our organization is going to do everything it can to win. Whether that means I'm in Double-A, High-A, the big leagues, whatever, it's just going to have to unfold itself. I'm definitely not worried about personal stats. I just want to be ready once my name's called."
It was even more enticing given Fulmer's personal connections to Sale. Both grew up in Lakeland, Florida, and although they didn't know each other well, Fulmer's brother Drew and Sale had mutual friends, so they weren't exactly unknown to each other. This offseason -- Fulmer's first as a professional -- the White Sox ace reached to his organization's new top prospect to talk about what they shared, not only in terms of hometown but also as first-rounders with heavy expectations.
"It's kind of a cool pairing right there," Fulmer said. "We've been talking about what to expect, what he's gone through. He's just told me it's about not doing too much and not trying to impress everyone. They have a plan, and you have to respect that. He's gone through what I'm going through and had success with it, so looking up to him as a role model, it's a very nice opportunity to have."
All that said, Fulmer's ascension to the Majors, a la Sale and Rodon, isn't a given. Those two Major Leaguers should be considered special cases, according to Capra, and not necessarily the rule.
"We'll probably slow [Fulmer] down a little bit, compared to those two," Capra said. "Sale, Rodon, they were expedited because how they were doing so early, how the ball came out of their hand so well. I don't think there's a need to expedite Fulmer, though. He could pitch in Chicago in 2016, sure, but he's not on the same pace as those two, I wouldn't think."
Part of that is size. At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-3 respectively, Sale and Rodon are physical specimens who look the part on the mound. At 6-foot-1 -- or 6-foot as Vanderbilt listed him last year -- Fulmer has to get the most out of his comparatively diminutive frame, and the White Sox will want to see that work done in the Minors.
Then there's the case of his delivery, which has a lot more moving parts than the cleaner moves usually favored by scouts. That's just a part of who he is, Fulmer believes.
"It's quick tempo," he said. "That's how I do everything. I'm very fast-paced because I like to get the job done. Every pitcher's different, but for me, that's how I get my body going, how I make everything connect. I want to be driving everything I have toward the mitt. That's my style of pitching and the White Sox have respected that to the fullest extent. I don't think that fast pace will change."
Because of those issues along with his killer stuff, there are plenty of voices among the prospect community who think Fulmer's future is as a special reliever, a role where his plus pitches can play even better and where the repeatability of his delivery wouldn't be such a big concern.
But there are still plenty of believers. MLB.com ranked Fulmer as the game's No. 38 overall prospect this offseason, putting him atop the White Sox system ahead of even speedy shortstop Tim Anderson. Chicago, for its part, wants to maximize Fulmer's potential value by giving him as many innings as he can handle, and that means staying in a rotation, likely at Double-A Birmingham to start 2016. Even in 2015 when Fulmer threw only 23 innings as a pro, all nine of his appearances came a starter.
"We're just talking about starter," Capra said. "Relieving is always in the back of the mind. But for the White Sox organization in 2016, he's going to be a starter."
That's music to Fulmer's ears.
"I love having the ball from the first inning through however long I can be out there, whether it's the sixth or seventh or even eighth or ninth," he said. "I relieved early on in my college career, but I want to start. That's every pitcher's dream, I'm not going to lie to you."
Because of some of the doubts facing his future potential, Fulmer knows following the Vanderbilt or White Sox first-rounder paths to the Majors might be harder for him. But he's still willing to lean on his predecessors to help make that happen, starting with an Arizona meeting with Gray this spring.
"He's definitely the man and so is Sale," Fulmer said. "Those guys are such superstars, and the fact that they were willing to help an individual like me -- and be so grounded and down to earth about it -- it makes me want to succeed even more."