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Twins send Tyler Jay to the bullpen

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Less than two years into his conversion to starter, the Twins admit defeat and Andrew Benintendi remains a player on a different, better team.

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Last weekend Twins Daily reported and others confirmed that the Twins have moved 2015 top pick Tyler Jay to the bullpen. The news in and of itself isn’t hugely surprising — this was always a distinct possibility.

In the 2017 Prospect Handbook, here’s how Baseball America discussed Jay’s future role:

With his mid-90s fastball and hard, late-breaking 88-92 mph slider, Jay has two big league quality pitches that give him a high floor as a potential closer. As a starter, he features a four-pitch mix, flashing an above-average curveball and mixing in a changeup that has proven effective against righthanded hitters. Evaluators question whther the modest-framed Jay has the physicality to sustain his stuff in extended work. Though electric in short stints, he wasn’t as sharp the second and third time through lineups in 2016. Whether Jay will ever build that durability is a divisive topic among scouts.

According to Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel, it was a mutual decision. Rhett Bollinger, Twins beat writer over at MLB.com, ran this quote from Radcliff:

"Nothing is permanent in the prospect development process but this is a collaborative decision to put Tyler in the best situation for success," Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff said. "Each organization is striving to maximize the strengths and abilities of each of our players and this decision reflects that objective."

KSTP/ESPN 1500’s Darren Wolfson got a quote from Jay’s agent in which he toed the party line: sure, he’s moving to the bullpen now, but we all agree that he still could be a super great starter and everything’s hunky-dory.

The hard part of attempting a reliever-to-starter conversion — or really any positional switch — lies in the discomfort it’s sure to provoke for the player. Players crave comfort and familiarity.

Tyler Jay was very comfortable in the bullpen.

In his three years at the University of Illinois, Jay made two starts — both in his final season — and 69 relief appearances. (Nice.) Jay was dominant from the ‘pen: his junior year, Jay struck out 76 batters and walked only seven in 66 23 innings of work.

Jay’s first career start came early in the season, on February 15, 2015 against Lamar. (I think it’s a university, not just a dude.)

The debut went well: Jay tossed five scoreless innings, striking out six and walking zero to pick up the win. Unfortunately for Jay, his second (and final) collegiate start, was against much stiffer competition. The No. 6 Illini (50-10-1) hosted No. 8 Vanderbilt (47-19) and Jay got the starting nod on June 8 — the same day the Twins picked Jay with the No. 6 overall selection.

Five picks before Jay, the Diamondbacks selected Vandy’s Dansby Swanson with the top overall pick. The same day he was chosen as the No. 1 pick in MLB, Swanson clubbed a homer off Jay to key a 4-2 Commodores Super Regional win that eliminated the Illini and punched Vandy’s ticket to Omaha, where they ultimately claimed the program’s first national championship.

Jay had entered the game with a 0.60 ERA and had allowed two career home runs; Swanson and teammate Zander Wiel doubled Jay’s total by the fourth inning of his final collegiate game.

The duo found out they were selected near the top of the draft just moments after the game ended, according to the Tennessean.

Dansby Swanson hit one of those homers and then was selected No. 1 overall in the Major League Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks moments after the game. Jay was drafted by the Twins with the sixth overall pick.

"It's the ultimate low to the ultimate high in about an hour," Jay said. "Losing at home isn't fun, but Vanderbilt is a great team."

Point is, Tyler Jay would be forgiven for feeling a little gun-shy about starting after how his final college start ended.

Although Jay only started twice for Illinois and served primarily as their closer, the Illini did stretch him out from the ‘pen. In his junior season, Jay had three 3-inning outings; two 4-inning appearances; one 4 1/3-inning outing; and one relief appearance, on April 25, 2015 against Penn State, that lasted six innings.

All told, Jay threw 55 13 innings as a reliever in 18 relief outings, good for just over three innings per appearance, according to my Minnesota high school math.

With his durability and ability to retain his effectiveness multiple times through the order, there certainly was reason to believe Jay could start as a professional.

Here’s how MLB.com described Jay’s prospect profile on the day of the ‘15 draft:

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.

Clearly, the previous Twins front office felt he could be a starter, and that’s where they used him last season.

In 2016, Jay made 13 starts for the High-A Fort Myers Miracle, where he compiled a 2.84 ERA over 69 23 innings, striking out 68 and walking 21. Jay was promoted to Double-A Chattanooga in early July, where he started two games for the Lookouts. Jay was poor in those two starts — 10 hits, eight earned runs, eight strikeouts and five walks across 10 innings — before being moved to the bullpen. Jay made three clean relief appearances in late July before being shut down with a neck injury.

Jay was fit as a fiddle a month later, but at that point the season was nearly over and the Twins elected to shut him down.

Right on schedule

And now here we are.

So, to recap: Terry Ryan & Co. drafted a college reliever who had made two career starts with the intention of trying him as a starter — which, in their defense, was something “the industry” at least thought was semi-viable. In every pre-draft writeup, Jay is discussed as a possible starter, with that standard little proviso included at the end: “he could move quickly if used out of the bullpen.”

Said starter then in fact pitched quite well in his first full season of professional baseball, and looked perfectly lined up to land a spot in the Double-A rotation, despite some dissension among “industry professionals” about his future home. Things seemed to be progressing exactly to plan.

Now, we have a new front office and Jay has apparently had some time this offseason to reevaluate his abilities/proclivities/sensibilities and the two sides have mutually agreed that the bullpen is the place for Tyler Jay at least for the time being.

Some folks have rightly pointed out that reliever usage is changing, and Exhibit A for that is Andrew Miller and the terrifying way he was deployed in the middle innings and cut through opponents (for most of) the 2016 postseason.

However, Paul Molitor has offered no indication that he’s remotely creative re: bullpen usage, though who knows — perhaps Falvey and Levine will have him singing a different, club-mandated tune going forward.

Jay has certainly demonstrated an ability to throw multiple innings on short rest, and the optimist would say that the Twins have their very own Future Andrew Miller™ to stymie 3-4-5 hitters in the sixth inning and propel the Twins to victory.

The pragmatist would look at this situation and see that Glen Perkins’ better days are behind him and the rest of the bullpen doesn’t boast too much swing-and-miss stuff. Perhaps the new front office simply is using Jay in the way most useful to the Twins in 2017 with an eye on converting him back to a starter, a la David Price or Chris Sale. (Remember: “Jay could move fast if used as a reliever.”)

And, of course, the pessimist would take a step back and point out that Price and Sale and guys of their ilk were deployed as relievers on playoff-bound teams that needed their bullpens shored up in big games. The Twins do not need this, and if by some miracle they did make a playoff push, they could move Jay from the Double-A rotation to the major-league bullpen in August or September.

No, the pessimist would say that a team badly in need of everyday impact players drafted a reliever with the sixth overall pick. This pessimist — who we’ll call Louie O., now wait that’s too obvious, let’s go with L. Opatz — would crack another beer and decide to take a glance at the 2015 draft board and wonder how, I don’t know, whoever was taken seventh was doing.

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Well, hello there.

Retrospectively relitigating an MLB amateur draft from the Sauron-like vantage of the future is foolhardy and rarely constructive. More so than basketball or football, say — which are themselves highly risky — baseball drafts are a total crapshoot. Most of these guys will go pro in something other than sports before they ever reach the show.

Drafting ballplayers is incredibly hard, which we know.

But the Twins drafted Tyler Jay over Andrew Benintendi, which makes me very sad. Again, it’s easy to second-guess this decision in retrospect.

At the time, Jay was ranked higher in many prospect publications, primarily because it wasn’t clear Benintendi would ever hit for power.

But it’s not as if the Twins stretched and drafted a high-upside high-schooler rather than take Benintendi, the more polished college bat with a quicker timeline and higher floor.

No, they drafted the best closer in the NCAA in Tyler Jay, a lefty who balled out his junior season to the tune of a 1.08 ERA, 76 K’s and only seven walks in nearly 67 innings. He won numerous awards and was a dominant college pitcher in the Big Ten.

If they wanted to draft a college player who would “get to the big leagues quickly,” a draft-eligible sophomore who batted .380/.489/.715 and led the SE freakin’ C in all three of those categories and, oh, also walks and dingers, would be a pretty damn good choice.

After his last collegiate season, it’s not as if Benintendi was flying under the radar. Here, check out his accolades from his final season.

I don’t know, seems pretty good I guess.

I lived in Portland for a long time, and the closest I ever got to inciting violence was the time I brought up Sam Bowie and Greg Oden in a bar. Passing on Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant will do that to people.

Andrew Benintendi is a long way from being Michael Jordan or Kevin Durant, and the Twins’ 2015 MLB Draft is a long way from being the Trail Blazers’ draft debacles of 1984 and 2007.

But, as a pessimist, this weekend’s news feels like another step toward Tyler Jay’s primary claim to fame being “The Guy We Drafted One Pick Before Andrew Benintendi.”

I hope I’m wrong. Lord knows I usually am.