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2020 BYB Tigers Prospect #14: RHP Kyle Funkhouser faces a make-or-break season

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The righthander is entering his age-26 season and has yet to reach the big leagues.

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

You know the old mantra. “Prospect development is not linear.” Thank goodness it isn’t, because righthander Kyle Funkhouser struggled immensely in 2019. In 63 13 innings for Triple-A Toledo, Funkhouser posted an 8.53 ERA and walked a whopping 17 percent of batters. Along the way, however, he had four strong starts at Double-A Erie, including one with 10 strikeouts.

In 2020, we will reach the conclusion of Funkhouser’s wild ride through the Detroit Tigers farm system. He has gone from a potential first round pick in 2015, to a fourth-round pick in 2016, to a “diamond-in-the-rough” type prospect in 2017 and 2018, to a freak foot injury that ended his 2018 season, to subsequent struggles in Triple-A in 2019 (including another shoulder injury).

With top prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Alex Faedo beginning to knock on the door, it’s now or never for Kyle Funkhouser in 2020.

Background

Funkhouser returned to Louisville for his senior year after he declined to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers when they selected 35th overall in the 2015 amateur draft. That move cost him a decent amount of money, as Funkhouser went to Detroit in the fourth round the following year — though he still signed an over-slot deal with Detroit.

Nevertheless, he has been able to make it through three injury-shortened seasons in his career as a starting pitcher. As I wrote last year, Funkhouser found great success in five starts, posting a 2.23 FIP for High-A Lakeland in 2017 before elbow inflammation shut down his season. Then, he pitched 89 innings for Double-A Erie and 8 2⁄3 innings in Toledo in 2018 before his freak foot injury. Funkhouser posted a decent enough 4.21 FIP for Erie that year, but his two starts at Toledo generated a 5.18 FIP.

Last season, Funkhouser had a disastrous tenure with the Mud Hens, including a shoulder injury that culminated in his demotion to Double-A. He barely averaged 3.5 innings per start, and while his 4.89 FIP isn’t nearly as bad as his aforementioned 8.53 ERA was, it led the Tigers to push him back to Erie for a brief demotion in July. In four total starts for Erie in 2019, Funkhouser experienced a bounce-back of sorts, posting a 1.90 ERA and 2.58 FIP, while reducing his walk rate back down to 3.4 percent.

Strengths

Funkhouser’s key strength is his four-seam fastball. The pitch sits between 93 to 96 miles per hour and tops out anywhere between 97-98 mph. It’s a plus pitch; our friend James Chipman at Tigers Minor League Report gave it a 60 grade, while FanGraphs currently believes it to be an above-average (55 grade) offering. FanGraphs has the same grade on his slider, which sits between 84 and 86 miles per hour; Chipman calls it above-average as well.

Nothing demonstrates Funkhouser’s potential quite as well as this sequence from 2018 in which he blew away top Colorado Rockies prospect Brendan Rodgers while pitching at Double-A.

The fastball and slider combination would help Funkhouser to become a very reliable reliever, and he very well may be used in that capacity in Detroit this season. That said, Funkhouser has posted high strikeout rates throughout his minor league career as a starting pitcher, so the Tigers may hold out hope that Funkhouser can still be used as a starter long term.

Weaknesses

Funkhouser’s biggest obstacle throughout his career has been his health. To date, he has not pitched more than 100 innings in a single professional season. Should he struggle to stay healthy in 2020, Funkhouser will almost certainly be considered a reliever moving forward.

He might just end up in the bullpen anyway, as his command is spotty. Chipman notes Funkhouser as having “below-average” command, while MLB Pipeline is a bit more optimistic. FanGraphs thinks he could get to average (50 grade) on this department in the future, but they currently have a below-average (40) grade on his command. These concerns fully came to light when Funkhouser walked nearly one in every five batters he faced this past season in Toledo.

Funkhouser’s secondary pitches (beyond his slider) leave something to be desired, leaving him with two solid offerings. First, he has a 83-85 mph changeup. Its break isn’t great, but the velocity separation from his fastball leads to the pitch receiving a fringe-average 45-grade from both of our aforementioned references. Funkhouser also throws a 79-81 mph curveball. As of now, the pitch is inconsistent and thus it receives a below-average 40-grade from Chipman and no grade at all from FanGraphs.

There’s still time, though; as mentioned, Funkhouser was able to dominate Double-A competition in short spurts last year, and held his own in 2018. With his fastball-slider combination, he has the ceiling to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter should everything click, or a back-end reliever if he hits his spots. Healthy or not, given his age, his time as a starter could be over depending on how the Tigers want to use him entering the 2020 season.

Projected 2020 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens

I wanted to going to go out on a limb here and predict Funkhouser to have a strong spring and land a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. As of now, the team’s bullpen depth is extremely shallow — Joe Jimenez and Buck Farmer will be around, and perhaps José Cisnero and fellow right-handed pitching prospect Bryan Garcia, too — so the Tigers could use an extra reliable arm on the major league roster.

The Tigers also need to find a spot to put Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Joey Wentz, Anthony Castro, and Tyler Alexander. Given Funkhouser’s injury history and command issues, it would make sense to put him the bullpen and see what he can do. But here’s the thing: Funkhouser has never made a relief appearance in the Tigers minor league system, and he has two great pitches. It may take an injury somewhere for him to secure a second chance in the Mud Hens rotation, but injuries happen. Regardless of what happens, this appears to be a make-or-break season for his career. Either he finds his groove and reaches the majors, or he falls off our list, and the prospect radar at large.