Colin Rea erased plenty of doubt about his ability to consistently pitch at an elite level.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-hander from Cascade, Iowa, won the Triple-A Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Year award while leading the Des Moines-based Iowa Cubs to an American Northern Division championship. While the Chicago Cubs did not promote him at any point in the season, the 29-year-old Rea certainly made a case for a return to Major League Baseball for the first time since a 2016 elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery.
And, he feels considerably more confident in his future than he did last offseason, when the San Diego Padres released him after eight seasons in their organization. His one-year contract with the Cubs expires five days after the World Series, and he will become a free agent for the second consecutive offseason.
“The numbers and success I had might hold a little value, but the most important thing is I stayed healthy and I proved I can pitch a whole season,” said Rea, the Cubs’ only representative in the Triple-A All-Star Game. “That’s what teams want to see. It was a little frustrating at times not to get called up, because I’ve been at that level before, and I felt as though I was throwing the ball well enough to be up there, regardless of the numbers.
“At the end of the day, I just have to continue what I’ve been doing to stay healthy to get another opportunity to get there. There’s definitely a little more leverage this offseason compared to last offseason, but there’s not a whole lot we can do right now because, technically, we’re still employed by the Cubs organization. Depending on what they decide to do, we’ll start to talk to more teams in a few months. But we’re in a lot better situation than we were last year, for sure.”
Rea established career highs in victories (14-4), innings pitched (148) and strikeouts (120) in his first season with the Cubs organization. He posted a 3.95 ERA in the extremely hitter-friendly PCL to finish behind only New Orleans’ Hector Noesi on the league chart.
But, most importantly, he didn’t miss a start.
“The numbers he put up in that league in this particular year, when they switched to baseballs that fly better than others, were just awesome,” said Joe Speed, who serves as Rea’s agent. “And it certainly puts him in a much better position moving forward. There’s going to be a lot of interest in Colin, not only from other teams but also the Cubs themselves.
“It’s disappointing the Cubs didn’t reward him at some point this season. We certainly felt he deserved it. But he kept doing his job, and he kept getting stronger and stronger. He did what we knew he was capable of doing, because he’d done it before.”
Rea made his big league debut Aug. 11, 2015 for the Padres and went 7-7 with a 4.69 ERA over 26 appearances covering parts of two seasons. In his first start following a trade to the Miami Marlins in 2016, he injured his elbow and ultimately required the Tommy John surgery that kept him off the mound for the entire 2017 season. The injury also prompted the Padres and Marlins to reverse the trade.
A shoulder impingement slowed Rea’s return in 2018, and he went 3-5 with a 5.73 ERA in 18 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. The Padres released him, and he signed a free-agent deal with the Cubs, who opted not to place him on their 40-man roster — a move that likely hurt his chances at being promoted this season.
The shoulder issues hampered his offseason workout program and slowed his progress in spring training. He threw only six innings in Arizona and expected a delayed start to his season in Des Moines, but an injury to another starter prompted the Cubs to hasten his arrival.
“It kind of felt like I was playing catch-up for the first couple of months because I didn’t have the offseason throwing program I normally like to have,” Rea said. “So, the first six weeks of the season were kind of tough, in terms of how I felt. It didn’t bother me during games and the results were good, but I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I would have liked between starts.
“But I settled into a good routine, and that helped a lot in terms of my recovery between starts. The Cubs’ training staff did an awesome job of developing a program that worked for me. They want their players on the field and care a lot about your well-being.”
Rea’s 14 wins were the most for a PCL pitcher since 2016 and also tied the Iowa single-season franchise record. He narrowly missed becoming just the second Iowa pitcher to lead the league in ERA.
“Sometimes it takes different guys a little longer to bounce back from Tommy John surgery,” Speed said. “Everybody’s arm is different. But he pitched like the Colin of old this season.”
Rea experienced just a slight drop in velocity, due in large part to his offseason preparation. His fastball ranged between 89 and 94 mph, with an average speed of 91.
“With a full offseason of throwing and working out and staying healthy, hopefully I can get that up a tick or two next year,” Rea said. “Teams knew last year I wasn’t completely healthy in the offseason. That plays a big role in how you feel during the regular-season.
“The most important thing is teams know I was healthy this whole season. That’s really going to help a lot. This is really the first time since 2014 that I’m going into an offseason feeling healthy, so I can have the kind of workouts that will prepare me for next season. I’m actually really excited about next year, because I know I’ll have a good offseason.”
And Rea knows he will receive a few more phone calls than last offseason, when teams might have doubted his health.
“It’s just kind of a waiting game right now,” said Rea, who also expects interest from overseas teams. “We’re getting a little anxious, but it’s part of the process. Most of it’s out of our control really and we have to do what teams want or whatever the Cubs want.”