Illinois' Jay headlines lefty hurlers in Draft

Reliever could be first southpaw selected after helping Illini to vast improvement

Illinois' Jay headlines lefty hurlers in Draft

In 2012, Tyler Jay was a 150-pound senior at Lemont (Ill.) High who threw in the mid-80s and attracted little attention from pro scouts. Illinois' baseball program went 28-25, failed to qualify for the Big Ten Conference tournament and missed the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in 12 years.

Three years later, Jay might be the best left-hander available in the 2015 First-Year Player Draft, and he is a big reason why the Fighting Illini can stake a claim to being the best team in college baseball.

Jay leads NCAA Division I in WHIP (0.62) and ranks second in ERA (0.70), walks per nine innings (0.7) and strikeout/walk ratio (57/4 in 51 1/3 innings). Illinois has won its past 24 games to improve to 43-6-1 and all but clinch the Big Ten regular-season title with a week remaining.

There's little doubt that Jay will become the Illini's highest draftee and just their second first-round pick, following John Ericks, the 22nd overall choice by the Cardinals in 1988. Jay placed 19th on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Draft Prospects list in April, and he'll move up a few spots when the rankings are updated and expanded in May. The only question is whether the team that selects him will rush him to the big leagues as a reliever or try to develop him as a starter.

"He's going for sure in the top 15 picks, maybe the top 10," a senior scouting official with an American League club said. "He's got the pitches, he's gone four innings at times, he's got enough strikes, so some guys see him as a starting pitcher. He's better than Kyle Freeland or Brandon Finnegan were last year."

Freeland (No. 8 overall to the Rockies) and Finnegan (No. 17, Royals) were college left-handers drafted in the first round in 2014, with the latter making history as the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the World Series in the same calendar year. Both Freeland and Finnegan were three-year starters in college, while Jay has made just one start among his 65 career appearances for Illinois.

At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Jay lacks a classic starter's build, but he's a quick-twitch athlete with a resilient arm. He generates premium stuff with plenty of arm speed and little effort in his delivery, and he should be more durable than his size and role might indicate.

In his lone start on Feb. 15 against Lamar, Jay threw five scoreless innings and was more overpowering at the end of the outing than he was at the beginning. When he blew a save on April 25 against Penn State, he stayed in the game for six innings and 99 pitches. Jay has worked at least three innings on seven occasions this year.

Jay has added about 25 pounds to his frame and 10 mph to his fastball since he arrived in Champaign. He now consistently operates at 93-95 mph, even when he works on back-to-back days, and can hit 98. Jay also can locate his heater wherever he wants.

Jay has an unusually deep repertoire for a reliever, too. Jay owns an overpowering mid-80s slider, an upper-70s curveball with depth, and he shows the makings of a quality changeup, even if he doesn't need it much in short stints.

"He has four pitches," a National League area scout said, "and three could be plus."

Jay broke out in 2014, when he converted all 10 of his save opportunities in the spring and threw 16 2/3 scoreless innings for the U.S. collegiate national team, and he has taken his performance to another level as a junior. His size, stuff and competiveness are reminiscent of Ron Guidry, another undersized college lefty who won 170 games, an AL Cy Young Award and two World Series championships with the Yankees. That kind of upside is why Jay is destined for the first round and why the Illini could be headed to the College World Series in June.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.