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Tigers’ Michael Fulmer making progress in return from Tommy John

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LAKELAND, Fla. — At this time last year, Michael Fulmer was hoping for a healthier 2019. Instead, his injury woes went from bad to worse.

Fulmer needed Tommy John surgery and did not pitch at all last season, another setback for the right-hander who won AL Rookie of the Year honors for Detroit in 2016 but now faces an uncertain future for the Tigers. Still just 26 years old, Fulmer can give the team a lift if he comes back healthy, but that’s still a work in progress.

“I feel better than I thought I would at this point, playing catch out to 120 feet,” Fulmer said this week. “Next progression is getting on the mound. Very anxious for that moment, but we’ve got to wait until it gets here.”

Fulmer said he was hopeful he could throw on the mound around the end of March, perhaps before the team heads north.

Fulmer went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 2016, his debut season in the majors. He was fairly solid again the following year, but since then, he’s had one problem after another. Oblique and knee injuries limited Fulmer in 2018, when his ERA rose to 4.69. He was hoping he had put those issues in the past at spring training last year, but he ended up facing an even longer recovery after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“It took seven months without picking up a baseball, which is probably the longest time I haven’t touched a baseball since I was probably 4 years old,” he said. “Tommy John’s just a different animal. You start playing catch again, and you’re three, four weeks at one distance, throwing-wise. Then you’re getting moved up and then you’re excited, then there’s three, four weeks of that distance, and so on.”

Fulmer says he can understand why some other pitchers have been able to bounce back so well from this operation — the rehab process is extensive. But it’s not easy being at spring training when you can’t pitch yet.

“You can never get inside somebody’s head. All you can do is listen to them talk. He handles it very, very well,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’m sure he’s very frustrated. He wants to be out there doing all those things with all the guys, but through all this, he’s probably learned a little bit of patience, knowing when you try to rush it, it doesn’t really work out too well.”

The rebuilding Tigers are approaching a period of transition with their rotation. Three of their top prospects are starting pitchers, and although Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal aren’t expected to begin the season in Detroit, their progress will be a big story in 2020.

Meanwhile, Matthew Boyd is the clear leader of the major league staff after striking out 238 hitters last year. Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris are also in the mix — as is Fulmer. This season could go a long way in determining who fits into Detroit’s long-term plans on the mound.

So the sooner Fulmer can return and show what he can do, the better for everyone involved.

“He’s got to let everybody — smart guys, the medical people — get him into where he’s supposed to be,” Gardenhire said. “Then we see how he is halfway through the year.”

In the meantime, Fulmer has a chance to be something of a mentor to those highly touted prospects at spring training. If any of them can handle the transition to the majors as well as Fulmer did in 2016, the Tigers will be quite pleased.

“We were all 20, 21 years old once. It’s tough,” Fulmer said. “Those guys, they’re keeping their head down, they’re putting in the work. I’m excited to see what they have this spring training. I’ll be watching a little closer, since I don’t have much to do now.”

Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports



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Tony Kemp says he refused to take part in Astros’ sign stealing

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MESA, Ariz. — Called up in September 2017 by Houston, Tony Kemp immediately was asked by teammates whether he wanted to be a part of the Astros‘ sign-stealing scheme. He says his answer was a firm no and that he didn’t feel further pressure to take part.

“That stood,” the second baseman said Friday after arriving in Oakland‘s spring training camp and reuniting with former Astros teammate Mike Fiers, who went public in November about Houston’s sign stealing that rocked the baseball offseason. “Once I got there in September, the system was already in place, and I just tried to keep my head down and play hard and not really concern myself with it.”

Kemp said what Houston did was wrong and, when asked whether the 2017 World Series title is tainted, noted: “That’s a good question. Everyone’s going to have their own speculations about it, everyone’s going to have their own opinions about it. I’m not sure.”

Houston manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired last month, on the same day commissioner Rob Manfred suspended them over the sign-stealing scheme. Former Astros bench coach Alex Cora was dismissed as Boston Red Sox manager, and ex-Astros player Carlos Beltran lost his job as New York Mets manager.

Kemp said he appreciates the apologies by Astros players, which he considered sincere, and said “you definitely feel for them.”

“I’m not going to say that things that were going on over there were necessarily right. Those things were wrong,” said Kemp, who was acquired by the A’s from the Chicago Cubs last month. “I think that they’re feeling remorse now. You see those guys and how they feel and how they’re acting and you can definitely tell that there was some wrongdoing there.”

Kemp planned to speak to his new teammates individually rather than make a statement in front of the group.

“If I was more involved, then I think a statement would be the right thing to do, but we’re all grown men and I think if you have questions you can come up and ask me and I’ll be straightforward with you,” Kemp said. “I think that if teammates have questions and want to come up to me, I’ll be more than welcome to answer the questions.”

A’s manager Bob Melvin met with Kemp on Friday and agreed with the infielder’s approach to getting to know his new teammates, many of whom he faced in the minor leagues. Melvin said the reception might be different had Kemp been a regular player for the Astros in recent years, saying, “I think this thing gets closed pretty quickly as far as his time over there in Houston.”

“He’s got a real clear conscience about what happened,” Melvin said. “Most of our guys know him. I think in the position that he’s in, I don’t need to call a meeting and have him talk to everybody. The guys know they can go up to him and talk to him in groups. Everything I heard was all good, move forward with him. We’re happy to have him.”

Fiers, a 15-game winner last season who pitched his second career no-hitter, has declined to speak in detail about the Astros situation or his role as whistleblower. He said he approached Kemp on Friday.

“I’ve always respected Tony. He’s always been a good guy,” Fiers said. “Always got along with him. Good dude to have on the field and as a teammate.”

Kemp said he chose not to participate in the sign-stealing system because “I was comfortable with the way I was swinging the bat at the time in Triple-A.”

“Once I got called up, I just felt like I was going to trust my abilities up there,” he said. “I just didn’t want any distractions.”

He also didn’t have a guess as to how many players were stealing signs because he hadn’t been there long.

“In ’17, that was my choice,” he said. “I had four or five months in the big leagues under my belt at that time, and I just felt like at the time that I didn’t want to use it. I’m not going to sit here and say bad things about the people who did, but it is what it is. We move forward, and now we’re in the same division, so now it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a healthy competition. I think everyone’s looking forward to it.”

Oakland won 97 games each of the past two seasons to finish second in the American League West behind Houston. Kemp, who will get regular work at second base this spring, realizes the matchups with the Astros will now have new meaning and might be difficult for Fiers at times.

“I think that leaving Houston and going to a different team, I think you have to at least say, ‘Hey, they do some things, you might have to switch your signs up or you might need to do something,'” Kemp said. “For Fiers, it’s a tough situation to be in because you have teammates in Houston but you also have new teammates. It’s a sticky situation.”

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MLB raising minimum salary for minor leaguers in 2021

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NEW YORK — Major League Baseball is raising the minimum salary for minor league players in 2021, according to a memo sent Friday from the commissioner’s office to all 30 teams and obtained by The Associated Press.

Two years after successfully lobbying Congress to exempt minor leaguers from federal minimum wage laws, MLB opted to give those players a wage increase between 38% and 72%. The bump was discussed at last week’s owners meetings and confirmed in the memo from Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball economics and operations.

Players at rookie and short-season levels will see their minimum weekly pay raised from $290 to $400, and players at Class A will go from $290 to $500. Double-A will jump from $350 to $600, and Triple-A from $502 to $700.

Minor leaguers are paid only during the five-month season and don’t receive wages during the offseason or spring training.

The raises come as MLB is negotiating with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 seasons. MLB proposed cutting 42 of the 160 required affiliated teams during those negotiations, a plan criticized by small-town fans and politicians at the local and national level.

“MLB’s priorities include reducing the travel burden on players and improving player working conditions,” Sword wrote. “These and other objectives only can be achieved with agreement of the National Association, or absent an agreement, following the expiration of the current PBA in September. However, we can move forward unilaterally with our goal of improving compensation for minor league players.”

A group of minor leaguers filed a lawsuit against major league teams in February 2014, claiming most earned less than $7,500 annually in violation of several laws. While the case has not yet gone to trial, Congress passed legislation stripping minor league players from protection under minimum wage laws. Congress put the “Save America’s Pastime Act” onto page 1,967 of a $1.3 trillion spending bill in 2018 at MLB’s urging.

The most talented players frequently get hundreds of thousands _ even millions _ of dollars in signing bonuses, but there are also players who sign for as little as $1,000. The financial burden has prompted some players to use tattered equipment, accept charity from more fortunate teammates, or in the case of one player, to live out of a school bus.

By comparison, the major league minimum is $563,500 this year, and the top players make over $30 million annually. For players on 40-man rosters on option to the minors, the minimum is $46,000 this season.

Commissioner Rob Manfred repeatedly has said player wellness is MLB’s priority in negotiations, seeking improvements in facilities, travel and salaries. MLB teams are fully responsible for minor league player salaries under the current PBA.

At the winter meetings in December, Manfred became agitated when asked why improving minor league salaries was being offered as a defense of the proposal.

“Obviously there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises,” Manfred said. “I think the question there becomes who should bear all of the costs associated with the player-related improvements that we think need to be made in the minor league system.”

The Toronto Blue Jays independently issued 50% raises to their players with minor league contracts before the 2019 season. They are the only team known to have paid their players more than the minimum.

Only players on 40-man rosters are part of the major league players’ union.

Minor league salaries have been stagnant for years, and players have strained to make ends meet on as little as $5,500 per season. Some players live in overcrowded apartments, sleeping on air mattresses, subsisted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and sacrificed potential training hours to work better-paying jobs in the offseason.

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Yankees GM Brian Cashman says Astros had ‘distinct advantage’ with sign stealing

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TAMPA, Fl. — For the Houston Astros, the verbal hits just keep on coming. New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman joined the enormous ranks of those in the baseball industry to say publicly that they believe that the Astros’ illicit sign stealing was difference-making in the competition.

“I definitely think it had an effect on things, without question,” said Cashman. “The Houston Astros were dealing with a distinct advantage moreso than their opponents. That’s a fact. I don’t anybody can disagree with that, although they may try.”

The Astros beat the Yankees in the 2017 American League Championship Series, and again in 2019, although Cashman said he doesn’t know for sure whether the Astros continued stealing signs in 2018 and 2019, or used a buzzer system in ’19. He believes sign-stealing directly impacts results.

“Yes, or else you wouldn’t be doing it,” Cashman responded.

There has been a torrent of criticism directed at the Astros from many other players and staffers, from Cody Bellinger to Justin Turner of the Dodgers, Mike Clevinger of the Indians, Evan Longoria of the Giants, Sean Manaea of the Athletics, CC Sabathia, Aroldis Chapman and Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees, a seemingly unprecedented and angry peer review.

“There’s a bit of a therapeutic side to this thing,” Cashman said. “I think everybody has the right to speak to this subject matter, speak their truth, and then find the time — sooner than later — to move forward. Because that’s all you can do at this point. This was a very noteworthy story, and we’re all gathering in our various camps now and being asked a lot of questions on a daily basis.

“It’s an unhealthy dynamic for our game to be dealing with, and I’m looking forward to getting back to normal despite the frustrations about what occurred back in ’17 — at the very least. Ultimately, that was then, this is now. And we have an exciting opportunity with the personnel we have here to focus on what’s ahead of us, rather than what’s in the past.”

Carlos Beltran was specifically cited in the report released by Commissioner Rob Manfred as being a central figure in the Astros’ sign-stealing system. But Cashman said that based on his working relationship with Beltran — who was a player for the Yankees 2014-2016, and then a special assistant in 2019 — he has a hard time buying that Beltran would have pressured others into cheating, as portrayed in recent stories.

“The Carlos Beltran who I know is a good person,” said Cashman. “A great player. A gentle giant … but with a warm gentle side to him, a great teammate. Someone who was easy to communicate with, from a front office’s standpoint … I can say as a friend, that a lot of stories that have come out, I have a hard time believing, in how he’s being portrayed. I’m not saying he didn’t do anything wrong. Clearly, the Commissioner’s Report speaks for itself. But in terms of being forcing other people to do this, that or the other thing, I have a hard time buying that, because that wasn’t the person I knew as a player, that wasn’t the person I knew as a special advisor.”

Cashman, who acknowledged that he spoke with Major League Baseball many times about suspicion of sign-stealing, said that when the Yankees hired Beltran as a special assistant, he asked Beltran about the Astros and their sign-stealing, and never got a concrete answer.

“We’ve asked so many people, because there’s been a lot of suspicion with the Houston Astros in ’17,” he said. “It’s been asked a lot … but without having direct knowledge of what was going on, just having a sense that something was going on. And you have conversations with other competitors, getting feedback on what was going on.”

“Now we know. Obviously the big reveal has come out. But ultimately, we have to start focusing on the present and the future. It’s the only healthy thing to do.”

Cashman wouldn’t answer the question of whether he would again hire Beltran, who was recently dismissed as manager of the Mets without actually managing a game.

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