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2018 BYB Tigers Prospect #9: RHP Kyle Funkhouser aims for a return to dominance

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After an interrupted 2017, Funkhouser looks to get back on the fast track this season.

Division Series - Baltimore Orioles v Detroit Tigers - Game Three Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers aren’t exactly known for shrewd draft strategy, but sometimes a gem just falls in your lap. Righthander Kyle Funkhouser was viewed as a lock to go in the first round back in 2015 before arm issues and a striking loss of command tanked his draft stock. He somehow fell all the way to the fourth round of the 2016 draft, and the Tigers snatched him up with the 115th overall pick.

Since joining the Tigers’ system, Funkhouser has served notice that the advanced stuff and command is still there. Some scouts like him as much as any pitcher in the Tigers’ system. However, while he has avoided any true arm injuries, bouts of inflammation have continued to diminish expectations for the young righthander. As a result, he is hard to project. Funkhouser has the talent to be a quality starting pitcher. It’s all a question of how much work his arm is going to be able to handle going forward.

Background

Funkhouser was one of the big stories of the 2015 draft: a top collegiate pitching prospect, expected to go very early. When a last-minute drop in his stock caused him to slip to the bottom of the first round, he gambled on his own ability and snubbed the Dodgers' contract offer. By 2016 it became clear his choice to return for a fourth year at Louisville was a costly one. Funkhouser cost himself at least $1 million in the process. Ultimately, he fell to Detroit in the fourth round.

Scouts claim Funkhouser’s old stuff has yet to return, but the results would indicate otherwise. Proving himself more than capable of handling Midwest League hitters, a promotion to High-A saw him become even more dominant. He was only five starts into a remarkable stint with Lakeland that saw him post a 2.23 FIP and 9.77 strikeouts per nine innings when inflammation in his elbow led the Tigers to shut him down for the rest of the season.

Strengths

In true Tigers draft fashion, Funkhouser wields a plus fastball. His four-seamer sits in the mid-90s, reaching back to hit higher velocities, including reports of 98 miles per hour. It is supplemented by a two-seamer that will run in the 92-93 mph range that is mostly thrown to the bottom of the zone. He isn't afraid to work up the ladder with either pitch. Another heartening development in Funkhouser's case is his changeup. He had little use for the pitch while in college. However, it has improved since he joined Detroit's system, and he now uses it liberally and with confidence. This is both indicative of a feel for pitching and strong mentality. The fastball is plus, his slider is solid, and now he has the changeup to back them with.

A key aspect of Funkhouser's game that has improved in the Tigers’ organization is his command. A sudden and extreme loss of command is what hurt him so badly in his final season of college ball. He walked 4.53 batters per nine innings, a nearly impossible figure to overcome with any number of strikeouts. Since joining professional baseball, he has cut back the free passes significantly, with a composite total of 2.43 batters per nine innings across three levels of the minors.

Funkhouser is more advanced than many pitchers at his level. Admittedly, that scale is a bit tipped in his favor — most collegiate pitchers with his track record aren't made to pitch much in the low minors. That said, he did an admirable job there and some believe that Funkhouser could be in the running for the fifth starter's spot on the big league team if it weren't for his injury. Either way, reaching Double-A in his second full season is a true accomplishment.

Weaknesses

Throwing four effective pitches isn't the most common thing among minor league pitchers, so Funkhouser stands out. However, that isn't to say all his offerings are good. His curveball lags behind the other three weapons in his arsenal. As was noted in last year's scouting report, he began to favor the pitch over his slider, which had been his go-to in previous seasons. Realistically, it is little more than a change-of-pace, especially since his changeup has seen a bit of a renaissance.

There is also little wiggle room in his development. If things don't go according to plan, the future doesn't look very bright. Peter articulated this concern well in his scouting report leading up to the 2017 season.

Funkhouser is a great example of the “boom or bust” type prospect. If it all comes together, most see him as a solid No. 3 starter that eats plenty of innings. If that doesn’t work out, he will have to fight his way through the system to be the next in a long line of right-handed relievers called up for bullpen depth. ... There is a lot to like, but also just as much doubt as to whether he can return to the top form scouts raved about two years ago.

It remains to be seen how Funkhouser rebounds from a late-season injury. Funkhouser fits the profile of a future victim to Tommy John surgery, though he has not shown any structural damage despite bouts of elbow inflammation. The issue could turn out to be little more than a byproduct of exhaustion — he is throwing without discomfort so far this spring — but it's always prudent to stay on alert when a player returns from an injury like this. The Tigers were exceedingly cautious with Funkhouser’s elbow last season, but until we see him pitch a full season without issue it’s difficult to know if he’ll be able to get beyond any arm issues.

Projected Team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves

There is nothing left for Funkhouser in the low minors. He wiped out the Midwest League and was just as just as commanding with Lakeland. Considered the great divider of prospects, Double-A will probably prove to be the first true challenge in Funkhouser's young career. He will be part of a star-studded rotation that will also feature Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows, and later in the season, Greg Soto and Alex Faedo. A monster season could put him in consideration for the big club in 2019, but don't expect him to be relevant in the majors for another two years.