TD Top Prospects: #5 Tyler Jay
Age: 22 (DOB: 4/19/94)
2016 Stats (A+/AA): 83.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 77/26 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP
2016 Ranking: 5
National Top 100 Rankings
BA: NR | MLB : NR | ESPN: NR | BP: 98
Jay received a $3.8 million signing bonus when the Twins selected him sixth overall in the 2015 draft. Committing such a high pick and hefty sum to a pitcher who threw almost exclusively out of the bullpen in college – a non-traditional move, to say the last – was driven partially by the realities of a weak draft class, and partially by the organization's need for fast-tracked impact pitching.
Right from the start, Minnesota's front office made clear its intentions to convert the star collegiate closer into a starter. Perhaps they were emboldened by their results with Tyler Duffey, the former Rice University reliever who was enjoying a terrific season in Rochester's rotation and would later deliver a sterling 10-start debut in the majors.
But Duffey is a rare example of a hurler who made that jump successfully, and at this point it's generous to label his experiment a success, given that he'll probably end up heading back to the bullpen following a trainwreck 2016.
The Twins face long odds on this project, but the attractive contingency plan is part of what made Jay a solid gamble.
What's To Like
The 22-year-old southpaw throws a very good fastball with movement, although the mid-90s velo he regularly flashed in late relief lost a few ticks with the switch to starting. His slider is considered a potential plus-plus pitch out of the bullpen but also loses some of its bite over extended outings. As a core recipe, that combo is undoubtedly a winner.
He's a gamer who rises to the occasion, which played a big part in the somewhat controversial decision by Dan Hartleb, his coach at Illinois, to have him close games rather than start. Jay did take the ball for the final contest of his last season, a loss to Vanderbilt in the playoffs.
The ceiling is there, if he can command his changeup and prove himself in the durability department, for Jay to become a quality mid-rotation starter in the majors. But what really bolsters his prospect status is the relatively high floor. There is little doubt the hard-throwing lefty can succeed as a reliever in the majors. Baseball Prospectus, in naming him the organization's second-best prospect, suggested he could even become a "poor man's Andrew Miller."
And if the Twins were to commit to that path, they could probably have him up helping the big-league club by the second half of this year.
What's Left To Work On
For now, Minnesota is committed to bringing Jay along as a starting pitcher. To that end, much work remains.
Last year was the first step in orchestrating this tricky transition. Jay opened in the Fort Myers rotation. The previous season, after signing, he made 19 appearances out of the Miracle bullpen, logging a 27.2 percent K-rate amid mostly strong results. In the first half of 2016 he made 13 starts against the same level of competition and watched that rate drop to 23.6. It reflected a diminishment in stuff, but alas, he performed well enough to earn a midseason promotion to Double-A.
There, things began to unravel for him. Jay opened with two rocky starts for Chattanooga, yielding nine runs over 10 innings, and was then sent to the bullpen in an effort to manage his workload. He made three relief appearances before being shut down due to "muscle weakness in his neck and shoulder."
Now, we knew this wasn't going to be an instantaneous process, but it's hard to look at Year 1 of Jay's transition as anything other than a setback. During his 15 starts with the Miracle and Lookouts, he never reached 100 pitches. He wasn't yet at 80 innings in mid-July when the org sent him to the bullpen citing workload concerns, and finished with less than 85.
At best, it sets him behind in the build-up toward readiness for 200 innings. At worst, it's a more ominous indicator. Jay, listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, is slight in frame. There were questions about his physical capability to take on an MLB starter's workload, and his first full pro season only served to magnify those uncertainties. Add in the questions as to whether his third or fourth pitches will be enough to get him through lineups multiple times and... yeah, like I said: long shot.
He'll open the season at Chattanooga, where he'll need to show he can pitch deep into games routinely. Perhaps he comes into camp with some extra meat on the bones, and his offseason strength conditioning pays off on the mound. There is still hope he can figure it out as a starter and maximize his value.
But if things aren't looking good early on, the Twins don't have much more time to dink around with this experiment. Minnesota could use a power bullpen arm like his in the short term, and in that capacity, they know what they've got in the former All-American closer.