Kelzer hopes returning to IU keeps his stock on the rise

In one year, Jake Kelzer’s stock jumped 249 slots and eight rounds in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. By the next time an organization comes calling, the Indiana right-hander hopes to go even higher.

After the Chicago Cubs selected him in the 14th round of last month’s draft, Kelzer announced Tuesday that he will not sign a professional contract. Instead, he’ll return to IU for his junior season and aim to build on a resume that continues to trend upward.

In doing so, Kelzer wants to be one of the catalysts in helping the Hoosiers sustain their recent run of success.

“One of the main factors was definitely coming back and being able to prove to myself that I can be a top-10 rounder, and to be able to come back and bring this team back to Omaha,” said Kelzer, a former Bloomington South star who was also selected in the 22nd round by the New York Yankees in 2014. “We’ve proven that we have the skills, we have the people and we definitely have the coaching to get back there and I want to be part of that.”

Kelzer’s return gives Indiana some pitching stability after its staff was hit hard both by the draft and natural attrition. Senior relievers Ryan Halstead (San Francisco Giants) and Luke Harrison (St. Louis Cardinals), along with underclassmen pitchers Scott Effross (Chicago Cubs) and Christian Morris (New York Yankees) are all out of the program.

That will leave Kelzer and redshirt senior Kyle Hart as the go-to arms for IU coach Chris Lemonis in 2016. While his role for next season has yet to be decided, Kelzer has been used in a variety of roles since leaving the swimming pool and joining the baseball team’s active roster two years ago. He was featured both as a weekend starter and reliever last season, when 11 of his 17 appearances came as a stater and he led Indiana with 73 innings and finished with 57 strikeouts.

“We definitely lost some really, really good guys in Christian Morris, Luke and Scott and that’s really hard to replace those guys,” Kelzer said. “If you just look at their track record they’ve put up unbelievable numbers of the three or four years that they’ve been here. For us to get back and replace them our bullpen guys who played a little role last year are going to have step up big time and really have an impact and be good guys coming into the midweek and really step up. It’s going to be hard to replace them, but it’s definitely doable. We have the talent, we have the arms and we have some good kids coming in.”

The biggest knock against Kelzer at the moment is his consistency. Scouts love his projectable 6-foot-8 frame and ability to hit the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, but command has occasionally eluded him. So Kelzer said his biggest area of focus moving into his junior season is fixing a strikeout-to-walk ratio that fell from 4.89 as a freshman to 1.84 in 2015. He said he wants to sit down with IU pitching coach Kyle Bunn and figure out what kind of mechanical adjustments that will help him keep his stock on the rise.

“That means getting more consistent on the mound and having a bit more command,” he said. “Then, also making that (velocity) jump and not sitting in the 80s. It’s up in the 90s where I want to be, so those will be big impacts on whether I can make that jump from the 14th round to the top 10 rounds.”

Such a jump would also carry an increase in available bonus money. Although he didn’t sign, Kelzer will retain negotiating leverage if and when he’s drafted next year since he’s eligible through the 2017 season. Because he turned 21 during his freshman season, Kelzer will be available for the draft as long as he remains at IU. Having two more years available as a Hoosier helped Kelzer feel like returning to school next season was less of a gamble.

“That’s nice and good to have in my back pocket, but there’s never a guarantee (on being drafted),” said Kelzer, who declined to discuss specific contract negotiations between himself and the Cubs. “It’s nice to have two years of eligibility to come back and technically only be a junior, so having that in the back of my mind is a good weight off my shoulders.”

With Kelzer’s decision, Indiana is only waiting on incoming junior college outfielder Alex Krupa, who was selected in the 35th round by the Cincinnati Reds. He has until Friday’s deadline to decide. Another incoming junior college prospect, Travis Herrin, signed with the Los Angeles Angels last month and will not attend Indiana.

Kelzer, meanwhile, is happy to be staying at home.

“I’m just excited to be able to be back here and play,” he said.