Even before the Padres drafted Colin Rea out of Indiana State in the 12th round of the 2011 draft, he’d had saga of a career. The Cascade, Iowa, native pitched on the last University of Northern Iowa club before the program was dropped, spent a year at JuCo in Florida, then landed at Indiana State. There, he was in the territory of Mark Conner, now the Padres’ scouting director.
When the club took a chance on him on day two of the draft, they were betting on his big frame and solid mechanics, though Baseball America’s scouting report already knocked him for nibbling too much and not trusting his stuff.
Just a few weeks into his professional career, we had quotes from his then-manager Pat Murphy as Rea settled into pitching with Eugene. He finished that first campaign with a solid 2.21 ERA working behind the likes of Matt Andriese, Johnny Barbato and James Needy in the Ems’ rotation.
In 2012, he joined Matt Wisler and Joe Ross in the Fort Wayne rotation, getting several mentions in our monthly top performers recaps early in the year, before fading a bit down the stretch and moving back into the bullpen to manage workload. He finished his first full-season campaign with a so-so 4.33 ERA, striking out only 80 and walking 47 in 103 innings as he too often worked away from his own strengths.
By the time we wrote our 2013 preview for a Lake Elsinore squad that included Wisler, Austin Hedges, Cory Spangenberg and Travis Jankowski, then-farm director Randy Smith took an opportunity to call out Rea as someone “I think has a chance to be really good.”
Things didn’t go well for Rea though. By mid-May, he’d pitched himself out of the rotation, having walked 35 in 34.1 innings. By mid-June, he’d pitched himself out of the Cal league entirely, taking a 6.07 ERA with him back to Fort Wayne.
There, he went back to the basics, filling the zone out of the bullpen and ultimately finishing the year with three strong starts for the TinCaps.
When we talked to Rea in spring training in 2014, he gave an honest take on overcoming the mental challenges coming off such a rough campaign. He shared that “The key was having confidence in what I was throwing and Burt Hooten [the TinCaps pitching coach] did a great job in helping me out.”
With that new-found confidence, Rea went back to Elsinore that spring and re-established himself as a prospect. For the year, he posted a 3.88 ERA, striking out 118 and only walking 37 in 139 innings.
We talked with Rea at the end of the year, he had embraced pitching coach Bronswell Patrick’s mantra of being aggressive on the inner part of the plate, but told us he was still struggling to find consistent feel with his change-up.
Based on the positive input from multiple voices in the organization, John Conniff included Rea at the back of his personal top 30 list, predicting that “his career could take a giant step forward in Double-A.”
It didn’t take long to see that prediction come to life. Several early starts caught our eyes in the nightly system wrap-ups, but in mid-May, he went to the disabled list with a mild back issue. A month later, he was healthy again, and was once again dominant in his return to the mound.
By the end of June, Rea had a 1.08 ERA and nothing left to prove in San Antonio. He went up to El Paso and, after an initial awful outing, found his stride and allowed seven runs over his final four starts before getting called up to the big league team in early August.
In what wound up being his final game of the year, Rea dealt seven innings of two-hit shutout ball, before shutting down for the year.
While Conniff remained the high man on him on our individual lists, Rea ultimately appeared at number five on our MadFriars Top 20 and featured prominently in our look at prospects who would impact this year’s big league club.
Rea is a fantastic example of our frequent refrain that player development is not a linear process, and that physical tools often aren’t as important as the mental game. And while we try to limit our reporting and commentary to what the player is, we also develop fondness for certain players because of who they are.
We’ve enjoyed watching Colin harness his abilities, come back from adversity, and establish himself as a big league starter. We wish him well in the future.