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On Colin Rea and pitchers returning from injury

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Pitchers like this can still be useful pieces in minor-league systems.

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Rea was involved in a rather curious trade in August 2016. He had recently been sent from San Diego to Miami in a seven-player swap. He started one game for the Marlins, and suffered an elbow injury. A few days later, he was sent back to San Diego, Luis Castillo (who is now a top-shelf starter for the Reds) was returned to the Marlins, and Rea underwent the Tommy John procedure in November 2016. Since then, Rea has been positioning for another MLB chance. He’s now pitching in Des Moines for the Iowa Cubs. Despite pitching well, he’s not especially close to an MLB shot.

Rea was the Padres’ 12th-round choice in 2011 from Indiana State. In 2015, he burned through the two upper minor league levels in the Padres system, and was a useful starting pitcher in six starts for a bad Padres team. In his 134 innings of MLB work, he’s been a mildly below replacement arm. In 2018, he made 18 minor league starts in the Padres system, and was non-tendered by San Diego, making him a free agent. The Cubs signed him in the offseason, and he’s started eight games for Iowa.

As of late May, Rea doesn’t belong in the Cubs rotation. Nor does he belong in the Cubs bullpen. If he pitches well enough for long enough, he makes a curiously intriguing off-season 40-man roster addition. He’s a “Super Two,” which means he’s arbitration-eligible. I doubt his arbitration amount would be too steep, and the Cubs might even be able to come up with an agreeable number for a year or two.

As such, the Cubs don’t appear to have a huge hurry to do anything with Rea, unless he has an opt-out. If without an opt-out, Rea is in a bit of a precarious spot. The Cubs are unlikely to call him up. Other teams are unlikely to trade much for him. All while he’s been the best starting pitcher on a surprising team in Des Moines, with a 2.91 ERA. He’s somewhat stuck in the Pacific Coast League, for now.

He’s partially stuck, because there seem to be two types of teams anymore. A decent portion of the league is running the “rebuilder” mentality. Current wins are (from an organizational perspective) not especially useful. The 64-win team gets earlier draft choices than the 76-win one, and more to spend to sign them. Rea might be an upgrade, but they’re not likely to trade value to get him.

The quality leverage reliever is more likely used on a package of high-end prospects with zero years and zero days of MLB experience. As for prospects they already have (that the Cubs might prefer over Rea), those aren’t likely to go anywhere, either. If Rea is released, he’d be interesting. However, as is, rebuilding teams are unlikely to trade anything interesting for Rea.

With contenders, the outlook is no better. Teams in contention want assets that can help them right now. Rea is a bit more of a longer-term play. He’s not necessary a lock to go six strong innings in four of his first six MLB starts, despite good numbers in Triple-A. As such, the contender might be willing to toss along a lower-end prospect for Rea. For that slight return, the Cubs are better off keeping him, themselves.

With Rea, as with others, the players sought in trades are the players the other team doesn’t want to surrender in any circumstance. Rea has pitched well, but the demand won’t be there until he succeeds (again) at the MLB level. The Cubs aren’t likely to give him that shot until injuries or ineffectiveness require a roster move along the line. Other teams won’t bite until he’s been successful in the show, and he’s unlikely to get a look soon.

If he does succeed, the Cubs are unlikely to swap him, or prioritize him over who they have. Such is life on the road back from surgery in a league where the teams tend to be very polar in competitiveness. Rea has earned another look. Despite that, Kendall Graveman might get a realistic look first, even though he isn’t facing hitters yet. The Des Moines Register has also profiled Colin Rea this week, definitely worth a read.