Tigers' Funkhouser on the rise, three years after walking away from big payday

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Kyle Funkhouser

Detroit — It’s impossible not to ask him about it, even though you know he’s been asked about it in nearly every interview he’s ever done. But it’s too intriguing to let it slide and ultimately you are rewarded for asking — because his answer reveals a maturity and a depth of character you can’t glean from his pitching statistics.

Kyle Funkhouser, the No. 7-rated prospect in the Tigers’ system, was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers in 2015, the 35th overall pick, and although he was offered $1.75 million to sign, he refused and returned to the University of Louisville.

The next year, after an injury-plagued senior season at Louisville, he slipped to the fourth round, where the Tigers selected him and signed him for $750,000.  

More: Niyo: MLB must take action because there's a lack of it

So here he is, in his second full season of professional baseball, performing admirably at Double-A Erie. Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ first pick in the first round in 2015, Walker Buehler, who signed for $1.78 million, has already made his major-league debut.

Does he now, looking back, regret his decision to walk away from $1.75 million?

“I don’t regret anything about it,” said Funkhouser, who was named the Tigers' minor league pitcher of the month for June. “It’s hard to live life with regrets. I learned that at a young age. I never grew up with money, so it wasn’t really about the money.”

It was about principle.

Funkhouser, now 24, was being advised at the time by agent Scott Boros. The Dodgers contended their $1.75 million offer was above slotted value. Boros correctly pointed out that the Astros signed their first-round pick that year — taken two spots after Funkhouser — to a $4 million bonus.

That player, by the way, is now Funkhouser’s teammate at Erie – outfielder Daz Cameron.

“In my view, in the draft, not everyone is going to be happy,” Funkhouser said. “Everyone wants to be drafted higher except the guy who is taken first overall. Not everyone exceeds their personal expectations in the draft. It just didn’t work out.

“I went back to school, got my degree, got that all finished out, which was really important,” Funkhouser said.

Kyle Funkhouser: “I feel as good as I’ve ever felt pitching.”

Funkhouser was raised by a father, a laborer, who never went to college, and by a mother, an accountant, who earned a college degree.

“I got both sides (on the value of education) growing up,” he said. “Education and grades were preached to me and I felt at the time that it was the right thing to do to go back to school. Who knows what would have happened? I don’t think about it that much.

“It seems that, standing here right now, it was the right move. I am happy where I’m at and I’m happy with the way things have been to this point.”

Funkhouser, who has a fastball that tops out at 98 mph, a two-seamer, slider and a developing change-up, has allowed just two earned runs in his last five starts with 25 strikeouts and eight walks in 26.2 innings.

He could end up at Triple-A Toledo before the end of this season, and yet, he’s flown well under the radar. Tigers first-round picks Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning and Casey Mize, also Franklin Perez, who was acquired in the Justin Verlander trade, have gotten most of the hype.

Burrows pitched in the Futures Game last year and Manning has been selected this year.

None of that seems to bother Funkhouser.

“I went to a school where we always had a lot of high-prospect guys; you just kind of get used to it,” he said. “It’s an exciting time. We have a lot of prospects coming up and playing well and pitching well. A lot of young guys are stepping up and accepting the challenge and it’s nice to see. It’s exciting.”

Is it motivating? Does it put a chip on your shoulder to be somewhat overlooked?

“In a way,” he said. “When you are around better talent, you seem to play better. At least the good ones do. But for me, I try to keep it simple and stay within myself. When you get outside yourself, outside your comfort zone and outside of who you are, that’s when you seem to struggle.”

More: No-brainer: Tigers moving RHP prospect Sandy Baez to bullpen

After pitching just 100 innings in pro ball coming into the season – his season was ended early last year because of elbow inflammation – he’s already worked 85.2 innings this season.

“To be honest, I feel great,” he said. “I feel as good as I’ve ever felt pitching.”

He still needs to work on his consistency, especially with the overall command of his pitches. As he said, it comes and it goes on him. But he has made great strides with his slider, developing a tighter break on it, and he’s starting to implement a change-up, which he’s going to need at the next level and beyond.

“Me and pitching coach Willie Blair have been working on it, trying to find situations in the game to use it,” he said.

Funkhouser, though, isn’t trying to get ahead of himself. If there is a perception that he’s fallen behind others in his draft class, he’s not buying it.

“I haven’t thought about it like that,” he said. “Obviously, when the front office and the coaches think I am ready, I’ll move. Until then, I will keep developing my stuff and keep trying to get better and keep preparing myself to get there.

“And if I do get there later in the summer, hopefully I will be as well-prepared as I can be so I can just go out and do my thing.”