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Young arms delight on Tigers’ Connecticut club

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Zac Houston

It’s almost August and Mike Rabelo is back at work running the Tigers’ Single A Connecticut farm club.

It’s one of those strange short-season assignments. The team doesn’t begin playing until mid-June. The roster is loaded with youngsters fresh from Detroit’s hatchery in Lakeland, Florida, and festooned with kids only weeks removed from college and June’s draft.

It’s quite a classroom Rabelo inherits each summer as heavy-duty professional baseball teaching begins with a mixed crowd that makes Rabelo a meet-and-greet specialist who quickly morphs into a drill instructor.

But what makes it worthwhile – including 10-hour bus rides from West Virginia to New England, as the Connecticut Tigers experienced last week – is getting a gander at young talent.

Young arms have been the specialty six weeks into the Tigers’ season.

Kyle Funkhouser (fourth-round pick in June from Louisville). Mark Ecker (fifth round, Texas A&M). Bryan Garcia (sixth round, University of Miami). Austin Sodders (seventh round, Cal-Riverside). And a right-handed reliever, Eduardo Jimenez, 21, who is throwing bullets now that he has healed from Tommy John surgery in 2014.

All have impressed, including Zac Houston, an 11th-round grab from Mississippi State and burly 6-foot-5 right-hander who was so strong at Connecticut he was shipped last week to Single A West Michigan where he resumed old ways (Houston’s 2016 numbers: 0.69 ERA in eight games, with 24 strikeouts in 13 innings).

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“What I liked about Houston is he goes right at guys,” Rabelo said of a 21-year-old who weighs 250 and whose fastball cruises in the mid-90s. “He’s a monster. He looks like Rob Gronkowski (Patriots superstar tight end).”

The others are moving along at posted speeds, which can be limited because of workloads that already were heavy from college schedules and are being capped at Connecticut.

Consider Funkhouser: He was a first-round pick by the Dodgers in 2015 but wasn’t wowed by a $1.75 million offer and returned to Louisville for his senior year. His stock slipped a bit and the Tigers were able to snare him in June’s fourth round.

Funkhouser (6-2, 220) has started five games for the Tigers spanning 13 innings intentionally crimped because of his Louisville labors. He has a 3.46 ERA and 1.15 WHIP forged by 13 hits, eight strikeouts and two walks.

“His fastball is mid-90s, with a nice little slider, and a curveball-splitter – whatever you want to call it,” said Rabelo, who once was a Tigers catcher, and famously a piece of the package Detroit paid the Marlins in their trade for Miguel Cabrera.

“He’s thrown the ball well, but it’s tough to get a read when so many of these guys (college draft picks) have only been going through the lineup one time. But his stuff looks pretty sharp. We’ll know more next year. Right now, these guys are learning how to pitch at this level.”

Ecker, 21, and a pure reliever, has debuted more dramatically. In six games, he has worked nine innings, been clipped for two hits, while striking out 11 and walking one. Not surprisingly, he is 3-for-3 in save situations.

“He’s got an electric arm and a nasty change-up,” Rabelo said of a right-hander who stands 6-foot and weighs 180. “In the short time he’s been here he’s been nothing short of dominating. His fastball runs up to 98. He throws a little slider. But his fastball, change-up combination is devastating.”

Garcia, 21, and another right-hander, hasn’t allowed a run or a walk in four games. Sodders, a left-hander, hasn’t been overwhelming (3.63 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) but has 15 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings.

Jimenez (6-1, 183), who is also 21, was signed by the Tigers as a teenager from Cumana, Venezuela, and is reacquainting himself with old habits following his Tommy John layoff. He has struck out 16 in 11 innings.

“Fastball mid-to-upper 90s, and a good slider to complement it,” Rabelo said. “He’s got good stuff.”

Rabelo’s pitchers have been the story, almost solely, in a summer league where hitters typically run well behind pitchers who, because of their sophisticated college backgrounds and competition, can arrive at the New York-Penn League with a big early edge.

In a few days or weeks, batters will begin their catch-up phase, Rabelo says.

Until then, he can get to know pitchers who, at least in some early cameos, are proving why they were of such interest on draft day.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning