In recent years, the Twins have seen several solid late-inning options, including Taylor Rogers, Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, and Tyler Duffey. Relievers tend to burn bright for a few seasons and then fade away. This was the case with Duffey during the 2022 season, and Rogers has struggled since leaving the Twins organization. Minnesota hopes Duran and Jax are part of the team's relief core for multiple years, but teams will always need more pitching depth.
Last week, MLB Pipeline identified one future closer for each organization. This identification process can be challenging for writers because many of the best relievers were failed starters at one point in their professional careers. MLB Pipeline identified Kody Funderburk as a potential future closer for the Twins, but that seems unlikely with his current projections. Let's examine the 26-year-old's professional career and why he'd be a candidate for a late-inning role with the Twins.
The Twins selected Funderburk in the 15th round of the 2018 MLB Draft from Dallas Baptist University. He had been used as a two-way player in college, but the Twins wanted him to be a pitcher. His first two professional seasons saw him work his way from rookie ball to High-A by posting a 4.60 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and some control issues (7 HBP and 14 WP). He was around the age of the competition at each level, but he had a tough time finding consistent success. The pandemic took away the 2020 season, and Funderburk has looked like a different pitcher over the last three seasons.
In 2021, Funderburk split time between High- and Double-A while being used as a starter and a multi-inning reliever. In 11 appearances with Cedar Rapids, he posted a 3.18 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP and 11.7 K/9. He moved up to Double-A in July and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the first time in his career. Funderburk allowed three earned runs in 21 2/3 innings (1.25 ERA) with a 23-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Following the season, the Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League, traditionally known as an offensive environment that favors hitters. He started six games and allowed 12 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings with an 11.2 K/9.
Funderburk started the 2022 season in the Wind Surge bullpen, but the team needed him to return to the rotation by the season's end. By looking at his numbers, it's easy to see why the team had difficulty deciding which role would be a long-term fit for Funderburk. In the bullpen, he allowed eight earned runs in 36 1/3 innings (1.98 ERA) with a 1.40 WHIP and 6.4 K/9. His ERA rose to 3.44 in 17 starts, but he had a lower WHIP (1.29) and a better K/9 (9.8 K/9). Batter's OPS was only separated by 10 points in his two roles, but the Twins decided it was time to move him to the bullpen for 2023.
He began the year at Double-A, where he was 1.3 years older than the average age of the competition. Across nine innings, he allowed one earned run with a 14-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He allowed too many walks and hits, but his strikeout rate jumped to 14.0 K/9. The Twins promoted him to Triple-A before the calendar turned to May, and he has seen limited appearances with the club. However, his strikeout rate continues to be at a career-high. His transition to the bullpen hasn't been flawless, but there have been some positive signs.
When he started, Funderburk utilized a four-pitch mix that included a cutter, a two-seamer, a slider, and a changeup. His cutter is the pitch he throws most regularly, and it typically sits in the low-90s. His left-handed arm action is unique, and it helps his pitches have more east-west movement to keep batters off-balance. Seeing how his pitch mix evolves in his transition to the bullpen will be interesting.
Minnesota may need another left-handed reliever later this season, and Funderburk is a prime candidate to get an opportunity. It seems unlikely for Funderburk to be Minnesota's closer of the future when the team's current closer is over a year younger than Funderburk. If he can continue adjusting to his new bullpen role, he can be a late-inning option for the Twins in the future.
What are your initial thoughts on Funderburk? Can he help the Twins this season? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.