Player: Tyler Jay
DOB: 4/19/1994 (Age: 21)
Height/Weight: 6'1", 185 lbs
School: University of Illinois
Previously Drafted: N/A (not drafted out of high school)
Tyler Jay has come a long way since his days as a lightly recruited pitcher for Lemont High School in suburban Illinois.
"Coming out of high school, I knew that my potential wasn't even close to (what it seemed). I was a late bloomer with my size and body," Jay told Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune. "I'm like, 'Man, if I'm 6 feet now and 150 pounds and I put on 30 pounds in college, I have a lot more in me than what I'm selling,'" he said.
Three years and 35 pounds later, he's established himself as perhaps the best left-handed pitcher in the draft class while starring for an upstart University of Illinois team that rattled off a 27-game winning streak earlier this season.
Going back to his high school days, a lot of D-I teams wanted Jay to commit to playing the outfield, as he hit .484 with 11 doubles and 35 RBI during his senior season. Illinois was one of the few schools willing to give him a look on the mound, and it's paid off in a big way for everyone involved.
Jay was thrown into the bullpen mix as a freshman, and he held his own, making 18 appearances and going 1-3 with a 3.10 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 20.1 innings.
From there, he took a big step forward during his sophomore season and emerged as the team's closer. In 23 appearances, he was a perfect 10-of-10 on save chances with a 1.94 ERA, 0.984 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors.
That was enough to put him on the MLB prospect radar, but it was his time with the U.S. Collegiate National Team last summer that was truly his coming-out party.
One of 24 players selected to the team, Jay made a team-high 15 appearances. He picked up two wins and one save while striking out 21 in 16.2 scoreless innings, cementing his place as a potential first-round pick.
Back in the closer's role for his junior season, Jay has been absolutely dominant, going 5-1 with 14 saves and a 0.60 ERA, 0.613 WHIP and 10.4 K/9. That earned him a number of accolades, including Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and Louisville Slugger First-Team All-American honors.
It's important to note that he's not been used as a closer in the traditional sense for the Fighting Illini, throwing 60.1 innings over his 29 appearances. He's come on and pitched three and four innings to close out games on several occasions, and the tools are there for him to be a starter at the next level, but more on that in a minute.
While his electric fastball/slider combination has made him a shutdown closer and could put him on the fast track to helping out a big league bullpen, there is also a very real chance Jay winds up starting at the next level.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com's Prospect Watch offers up the following scouting report:
Jay now works at 93-95 mph and peaks at 98 mph with his fastball, even when he works on consecutive days. He generates that heat with athleticism and a quick arm rather than an excessive amount of effort in his delivery.
Jay has a deeper repertoire than most relievers. His plus slider is his second-best pitch, and he also has a curveball with power and depth and shows signs of interesting changeup. He has enough pitches and control to lead a pro team to consider trying him as a starter, though he lacks size and could speed to the Majors if he remains a reliever.
The continued development of his changeup will likely wind up being the determining factor in whether Jay gets a legitimate crack at starting long term.
Don't be surprised if he follows a similar path to Brandon Finnegan, who was rushed to the majors to help out as a reliever after signing last year, then returned to the minors this season to stretch out as a starter.
MLB Player Comparison: Andrew Miller (repertoire/starter potential); Billy Wagner (size, nasty LHRP)
Andrew Miller is now dominating in the closer's role for the New York Yankees, but back during his college days at North Carolina and early on as a pro, he was a starter. Jay has a similar repertoire of pitches, highlighted by a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider, and he too could see his role change as a pro.
However, as far as physical stature is concerned, the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum, as Miller has six inches on Jay at 6'7".
That's where the Billy Wagner comparison comes into play, as Wagner was also an undersized (5'10") lefty with power stuff out of the bullpen.
Some combination of the two should make for an impact arm, regardless of what role he winds up filling.
Projection: Elite closer, No. 3 starter
Major League ETA: 2016 as RP, 2018 as SP
Chances of Signing: 100 percent
Jay has seen his stock climb as much as any player in college baseball this season, and there is no reason for him not to cash in when he has the chance. A year in the Illini rotation won't boost his stock enough to justify returning for his senior season.