Funkhouser, Soto among Tigers’ fast-rising prospects

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Kyle Funkhouser

Because they finish their regular seasons by Labor Day, most of the Tigers’ farm teams already are nearly one-third into their 2017 calendars.

Which tells you how fast a schedule passes and how much news, good or bad, can get lost in the blur.

Time, perhaps, to inspect some of the bulletin-board items collecting at four Tigers farm stops, as well as at their Tigertown hatchery in Lakeland, Fla.

PROMOTION EARNED: Kyle Funkhouser’s move from Single A West Michigan to high-A Lakeland was the surest of early moves. It happened last week after Funkhouser pretty much destroyed Midwest League batters. He didn’t slip in his first start Sunday for the Flying Tigers: 7.2 innings, three hits, two runs, 10 strikeouts, zero walks.

Funkhouser, of course, was a first-round pick in 2015 by the Dodgers but chose to wave off the Dodgers’ bucks and wrap up his degree in marketing at the University of Louisville. His senior year for the Cardinals was lukewarm and he slipped to the fourth round last June when the Tigers, who had always been impressed with his arm and assets, jumped.

“We just felt in the fourth round, he was the best prospect available,” said David Chadd, the Tigers’ assistant general manager who for more than a decade supervised Detroit’s drafts. “Starter stuff, physical (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), good delivery, and solid make-up.”

Funkhouser has the usual power package, including a fastball that can hit 97 or more. He has a chance to be a rotation piece in Detroit as early as 2019, if not sooner.

QUALITY KID: That would be Gregory Soto, whose Saturday night start at Lake City explains why the Tigers love this 22-year-old left-hander: seven innings, five hits, one run, 12 strikeouts, one walk. Season digits: seven starts, 35.2 innings, 21 hits, five earned runs, 43 strikeouts, 18 walks, 1.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. He’s 6-1, 180, from Haina, Dominican Republic. Unless he breaks down, he’ll be a candidate for Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

PROMOTIONS, TAKE 2: Bryan Garcia, last year’s sixth-round pick (University of Miami), was also bumped last week to Lakeland. He has prescribed back-end bullpen pitches, including another of those big fastballs. His first splash in the Florida State League was on a par with what he had been doing at West Michigan (1.2 innings, three strikeouts). He made it two victories in two appearances with a scoreless inning Sunday. In West Michigan, Garcia pitched 16 innings, struck out 30, and unintentionally walked a single batter.

TRADE SURPRISE? Cameron Maybin has been having a forgettable spring with the Angels as a platoon left-fielder. The pitcher the Tigers got in last November’s less-than-popular swap was right-hander Victor Alcantara, 24, whose upside was regarded as high – if he could find home plate regularly.

He has made relative gains there in 2017 and now is pitching at Triple A Toledo after 11 games at Double A Erie went smoothly, as numbers confirm: 23 innings, 19 hits, 18 strikeouts, nine walks, a .220 opposing batting average. He has a plus curveball and will get a chance at Toledo to work further on that control.

Jairo Labourt

BREAKTHROUGH PITCHER: You can make a case for Jairo Labourt. He’s the big (6-4, 205) left-hander with, yes, a high-90s fastball, which is why one-time Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski insisted he be included in the 2015 trade package that sent David Price to the Blue Jays. Labourt has given up a pair of runs twice since joining Erie a few weeks ago but is otherwise turning himself into a potential bonus from that Price swap that also brought to Detroit Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd. Labourt’s data from 2017: 13 games, 21 innings, 16 hits, 34 strikeouts, only five walks.

WEST MICHIGAN HOTSHOTS: Always seems the Whitecaps have a collection of bright-lights pitchers. They’re on stage again in 2017 and include starter Austin Sodders, a seventh-round pick last June (Cal-Riverside), who’s built these numbers through seven starts: 0.73 ERA, 37 innings, 25 hits, 42 strikeouts, 12 walks. He’s a left-hander, 6-3, 180. Doesn’t have a menacing fastball, so you never know how the stuff may play at higher levels. But he’s been impressing his bosses to date.

Another right-hander worth following, for sure: Eduardo Jimenez, 22, a Venezuelan prospect (6-foot, 183), who has worked 11 games, spanning 20.2 innings, which have produced 13 hits, 29 strikeouts, six walks, a .183 opposing batting average, a 0.87 ERA, and an 0.92 WHIP.

SLOW START: Sandy Baez, Lakeland. He was looking like one of the Tigers’ showcase prospects heading into a new season but has had a rugged time at Lakeland after missing some early weeks with an intercostal strain.

He’s healthy, although you wouldn’t know it from these digits: 10.43 ERA in four starts, 2.25 WHIP, all due to 27 hits and six walks in 14.2 innings. He should straighten out – the power arsenal is there, and Baez is 23 – but this has been a sour time for a supposed top-shelf Tigers prospect.

OFF AND ON: And it’s an off-year for Grayson Greiner, the Tigers catching prospect who looked as if he was on his way to good times in 2017. He checked into Erie this spring and has had an ugly start: .180 in 29 games. Greiner was a third-round pick in 2014 (University of South Carolina) and seemed like a possible fast-track talent after he hit well (.293) at three Tigers stops last season, Erie included. He’s a big boy at 6-6, 220, and big catchers are regarded as long-shot risks. Greiner has time to settle in. He, and the Tigers, would appreciate a turnaround.

Cam Gibson

STATUS UPGRADED: Cam Gibson did some swing retooling during the offseason and is having a nice repeat season at West Michigan: six home runs and an .814 OPS through 40 games. He, of course, has speed, a left-handed bat, and plays the outfield in grand fashion. He was a fifth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2015.

STEADY STUFF: Gibson’s outfield cohort with the Whitecaps, Jacob Robson, has been a popular man at Comstock Park. He has cooled off lately (.263 in his last 10 games) but this London, Ontario, native and Windsor resident has otherwise been steady and strong: .336 in 39 games, with an .808 OPS. He’s a compact-model athlete at 5-10, 175. But he can run, which is why he has leadoff potential if he can get that bat to cooperate through the various minor-league rungs. He was an eighth-round pick last year (Mississippi State).

STOCK RISE: None have risen as surprisingly as Blaise Salter, the 6-5, 245-pound first baseman and grandson of ex-Tigers catching great Bill Freehan. Salter previously played at Michigan State and won a 31st-round contract from the Tigers in 2015. He bats right-handed and has been tattooing pitches for much of the spring: four homers, .323 batting average, .374 on-base percentage and .886 OPS.

NO RUSH: Christin Stewart and Mike Gerber could enter roster conversations in Detroit. And perhaps soon, should J.D. Martinez be dealt at the July trade deadline, as is more than feasible.

Each has work to do at Erie ahead of any moves to Toledo, or even Detroit. Stewart still needs to chop down on the strikeouts (42 in 39 games) and bump that average a bit higher (.266 on Sunday). But even more, he needs to find an acceptable gear on defense, especially if he hopes to play left field at Comerica Park.

Gerber is a year older than Stewart and a more complete all-around player. He could be bidding for fourth-outfielder status, or something better, as early as next season with the Tigers.

ON TARGET: Matt Manning, last June’s first-round Tigers pick, is progressing happily at the Tigertown complex and is likely headed for assignment next month at short-season Single A Connecticut.

Manning, 19, is 6-6, 190, a right-hander, and so fresh to professional baseball the Tigers weren’t taking chances this spring. He stayed in Lakeland, Fla., for some additional nurturing the Tigers deemed to be more prudent than shipping him immediately to West Michigan. The Tigers are pleased with his stuff and with his work in minor-league games in Florida. Their thoughts today: Manning will be fine once he hits the brighter lights this summer at Connecticut or West Michigan.