WASHINGTON – Tyler Jay is a local story that’s probably too good to be true for the Cubs. The University of Illinois closer is a hard-to-read player in a wide-open draft.
Jay won’t be there anyway on Monday night at the No. 9 pick if the fluid mock drafts are to be believed. At one point, Baseball America even predicted the Lemont High School graduate going first overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks, though the most recent projection had the Colorado Rockies at No. 3.
It’s also hard to see the Cubs going out on that limb when Theo Epstein’s front office has such a strong preference for hitters this high in the draft.
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But Jay, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound lefty, definitely helped put Illinois baseball on the map. The Fighting Illini (50-8-1) will host Vanderbilt University in a Super Regional that begins on Saturday in Champaign.
“He’s just a tough demographic to really lock into,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said. “He’s an elite talent. But you’re just basically dreaming on: Can he start, or is he a reliever? And it’s not fair to the player. We don’t know.”
But it’s a great question with Jay (5-1, 0.60 ERA) putting up ridiculous numbers. He’s given up four runs and seven walks in 60-plus innings, notching 70 strikeouts and 14 saves.
“He’s had a phenomenal year,” said Jason McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development. “He’s just been tough to see. The way that they use him, you have to devote almost the whole weekend to go sit on a closer who might not come in.
“I was 0-for-4 on him and I finally got him at the Big Ten tournament. That’s four days that I could have been somewhere else and you’re sitting there pissed. (But) he’s done everything for that team, and they’ve been frickin’ awesome, (so) it’s hard to argue with the formula.”
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Dorey joked: “I think Jason’s first time he saw him, he saw him for seven pitches. It’s like: ‘Oh, yeah, he can start…it was a really good seven pitches.’”
Illinois is two wins away from going to the College World Series. The Cubs feel like they got a good look at Jay – who has made only one start during his college career – while watching him pitch for Team USA. Dorey estimated the Cubs had someone there watching Jay for maybe 30 of his first 50 innings this season.
“At the end of the day,” Dorey said, “I think that’s going to be a guy that we spend a lot of time just talking through, because it’s not just hitting you in the face about what his ultimate role will be.
“But I’m so happy for the kid. First of all, to bring the University of Illinois into a position where they’re nationally relevant. And from everything I’ve heard, he’s just like a really great kid and they have a great dynamic on that team. So if nothing else, we’ve all become fans of that program just following their run.”