I probably shouldn’t reveal something that will undoubtedly make this whole site feel like even more of an amateur operation that it already does, but the impetus for rearranging a few important names (done so before I published it) within the top dozen or so college pitching prospect ranking was a team-specific email I was very casually firing off to a friend. I started by trying to answer the simple question of which college pitcher would I most like to see still on the board if I was a fan of a team picking in the middle of the draft’s first round. I like thinking about that question at the start of the amateur season because it generates a lot more discussion than a simple “Who would you take at 1-1?” query. Right now, I’m pretty sure I’d answer Brady Aiken and Michael Matuella for the latter question, but they would not necessarily be at the top of my list for the first hypothetical. That may seem a bit counter-intuitive, so allow me to explain.
Let’s say you’re picking tenth overall this year. As exciting as it would be to still see Aiken or Matuella on the board that low in the first round, you’d have to assume that there’s a really good reason for the fall. In the case of both Aiken and Matuella, there is an undeniable injury concern that is still a long way from being answered this spring. I think the only way that either pitcher would still be available that late is if news of a significant injury (a la Jeff Hoffman last year) broke between now and June. In last year’s draft, I think a really strong argument could have been made that Hoffman was talented enough compared to his peers that taking him around tenth overall even over healthy pitchers was a gamble worth taking. The peer group surrounding Aiken and Matuella (and any other pitcher that may or may not get red-flagged for injuries this spring) is much stronger. A Phillies fan would have been justified (in my view) in wanting to see his team gamble on Hoffman over Aaron Nola last year; this year, however, taking an injured Aiken or Matuella over a healthy Nathan Kirby, Walker Buehler, or Dillon Tate would make little sense. When you go to the next tier down (Carson Fulmer, Tyler Jay, Kyle Funkhouser, Phil Bickford), then I can begin to see the argument of gambling on a full return to health for Aiken or Matuella beginning to seem more appealing.
(Hastily added post-publication transition goes here. Use your imagination that I wrote something good…)
Even though I included him in the tier with Fulmer, Funkhouser, and Bickford and ranked him in the seven spot on my “preseason” draft rankings, I still think I’ve given short shrift to Tyler Jay. It’s fairly stunning to me that so much was made before the year by many (Keith Law, most famously) about UCSB’s curious decision to leave Dillon Tate in the bullpen, but I haven’t heard one peep about Jay’s usage. We all know by now that a last minute injury opened the door for Tate to start and the script has more or less written itself since then. What I don’t understand is how quiet the internet has been concerning Jay, a wildly talented young lefthander left to pitch only in short, unpredictable outings as Illinois’ closer. I’m not particularly interested in getting into the moral debate about what is best for the player versus what will most benefit the team (fine, real quick here’s my non-morals, all-baseball take: it’s crazy not to start a pitcher like Jay if the pitcher can in fact start), but I’d really like to see a potential first round player play on a regular schedule that would more easily allow as many well-earned eyeballs on him as possible. It’s nuts that literally everybody I’ve talked to, most everything I’ve read, and my own dumb intuition/common sense hybrid approach to this kind of thing (four pitches? great athlete? repeatable delivery?) point towards Jay entering pro ball as a starting pitcher despite never getting an opportunity to take the mound in the first inning in three years of college. If he’s good enough to start professionally three months from now, then he’s damn sure good enough to start in the Big 10. (This is the part where I’ll at least mention that Illinois’ pitching staff is loaded and whatever the coaches want to do with their team is their call. Still, for both short-term [Jay is awesome, so give him more innings] and long-term [Jay getting more innings will show everybody he is awesome, he’ll go higher in the draft because of it, and you can tell recruits you had a guy go top five rather than top twenty-five] reasons, I’d think the decision to start your best pitcher would be a no-brainer. I won’t kill them because it’s quite possible that the Illini coaching staff has information about Jay’s ability to start [relative to his teammates, if nothing else] that we don’t know from the outside looking in. Either that or they are being irrational and buying into old school baseball tropes that will only make their team worse anyway. Where were we?) If Jay goes as high as his raw talent merits (he’s easily a first round pick), then we’re talking about a college reliever being drafted right into a professional rotation. Such a move feels unprecedented to me; a quick check back through the archives reveals only one other similar first round case in the six drafts I’ve covered in depth since starting the site. The only first round college reliever drafted with the idea of converting him to the rotation professionally was Chris Reed. More on that from back in November 2011…
As one of the most divisive 2011 MLB Draft prospects, Stanford LHP Chris Reed will enter his first full season of pro ball with plenty to prove. He could make me look very stupid for ranking him as low as I did before the draft (200th overall prospect) by fulfilling the promise of becoming a serious starting pitching prospect as a professional. I don’t doubt that he can start as he has the three-pitch mix, frame, and mechanics to do so; I just question whether or not he should start. Advocating for time spent in the bullpen is not something I often do, but Reed’s stuff, especially his fastball, just looks so much better in shorter stints. Of course, he might grow into a starter’s role in time. I like that he’s getting innings to straighten out his changeup and command sooner rather than later. Ultimately, however, Reed is a reliever for me; a potentially very good reliever, mind, but a reliever all the same. Relievers are valuable, but the demand for their work shouldn’t match up with the sixteenth overall pick in a loaded draft.
I swear I didn’t copy/paste that just because it’s one of my few predictions to have held up really well so far. I mean, that was a big part of it, sure, but not the only reason. I guess I just find the case of Jay continuously flying just under the radar to be more bizarre than anything. I’m almost at the point where I’m starting to question what negatives I’m missing. A smart team in the mid- to late-first round is going to get a crazy value when Jay inevitably slips due to the unknown of how he’ll hold up as a starter. Between his extreme athleticism, a repertoire bursting at the seams with above-average to plus offerings (plus FB, above-average CB that flashes plus, above-average SL that flashes plus, average or better CU with plus upside), and dominant results to date at the college level (reliever or not), there’s little doubt in my mind that Jay can do big things in a big league rotation sooner rather than later. There two questions that will need to be answered as he gets stretched out as a starter will be how effective he’ll be going through lineups multiple times (with the depth of his arsenal I’m confident he’ll be fine here) and how hot his fastball will remain (and how crisp his breaking stuff stays) when pitch counts climb. That’s a tough one to answer at the present moment, but the athleticism, balance, and tempo in Jay’s delivery give me hope.
It’s hard to mention Jay without also mentioning Tate (multiple times, apparently), the fastest rising of this year’s college group of starter/reliever question marks (Carson Fulmer being the third). Tate’s turn in the rotation this year has allowed him to begin to answer all of those questions emphatically in the positive. His fastball has dipped some late in games so far this year (95-98 early to 91-93 late), but that’s less of a problem when you’re already starting at easy plus to plus-plus velocities; we should all be so lucky to throw in the low-90s when tired. Jay has shown similar velocity to Tate so far out of the bullpen (mid- to upper-90s), so even knocking a few MPHs off his peaks in short bursts would allow his fastball to play at a more than acceptable level in the pros. Just because Tate has done it obviously doesn’t mean Jay is a lock to do it when he gets his chance, but it’s a nice parallel to draw from two fairly similarly talented prospects.
Speaking of parallels, and I really hate to make this comparison because of how lazy it’ll appear, hear me out with this one. Long-time readers of the site know I do my best to look past player characteristics that don’t matter when it comes to developing comps, so hopefully I get the benefit of the doubt on this one. In all honesty, it makes a lot of baseball sense so whatever let’s just do it: Tate’s scouting profile looks a lot like Marcus Stroman’s coming out of Duke. The differences (mechanics aren’t similar at all [man, I loved Stroman’s] and Tate has a few inches on Stroman) are real, but the ties that bind the two are far more interesting. Both Tate and Stroman were primarily relievers through two years of college (Stroman made 13 starts out of his 34 games), both are/were great athletes with repeatable deliveries (even if you don’t love Tate’s, as I don’t, he is athletic enough to keep it up), and both clearly had the stuff to start once you looked past some of the superficial “he’s a reliever!” concerns (big fastballs, plus hard sliders/cutters, and underdeveloped changeups with big upside). I think it’s pretty cool that we’ve come far enough in just a few short years to better appreciate what a slightly non-conventional pitcher can do, and Tate should have no problem blowing past Stroman’s draft ceiling (22nd overall pick) this June. It helps that Tate has a little more size — Stroman being 5’9″ took the short righthander thing to a wonderful extreme — and a few additional contemporary examples of young big leaguers (Yordano Ventura) and minor league stars (Luis Severino) that helped crack the shorty righty glass ceiling. Speaking of Severino, I don’t know if that’s a terrible comparison for Tate, either. I prefer Stroman, but Severino, who dazzled me the two different times I got to see him this summer (93-96 FB, 98 peak; cartoonish mid-80s breaking ball, and a more advanced CU than most pitchers his age), isn’t a terrible name to be associated with.
Man, this is the kind of post that I just sit and write without doing much planning. Now that I’ve re-read it, it shows. Originally I thought we were going to get into the high-ceiling/high-floor abilities of Nathan Kirby and Walker Buehler (and maybe a little Tate), but it wound up mostly being about Tyler Jay and Tate. Two thousand words later and here we are. Go figure.