Unlikely breakout suddenly has non-drafted Rees on Blue Jays’ radar

Jackson Rees (Credit: Jill Weisleder via Arizona Fall League, MLB)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the weeks leading up to the 2018 MLB Draft, interested teams reached out to Jackson Rees, then a pitcher at the University of Hawaii. Rees was having what he describes as a ‘decent’ year. Nothing spectacular, but a 3.86 ERA against Division I competition was respectable enough.

Every time teams called, they’d ask if Rees would take a lowball offer. His answer never varied.

“I was like ‘yes, yes, yes, yes,’” he recalls.

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At 23 years old, the right-hander was eager for the challenge of professional baseball, yet round after round went by and he remained on the board.

“This might not happen,” he worried. By the end of the 40th round that thought had become reality.

Disappointed, Rees weighed his options. He still wanted to play, and had a year of eligibility remaining because of the two junior college seasons he missed due to injury. At the same time, he was nearly 24 years old. Would teams be any more eager to draft him when he was even older? Maybe he could get his masters in communications while he played. He’d need to make some money, too.

“Probably some sort of small job,” he says. “A desk job at a gym or something so I could work out.”

After the draft, though, an opportunity arose. The Blue Jays needed someone who could throw strikes at rookie ball, so director of player development Gil Kim started asking around. Soon enough, he heard a recommendation from Jim Lentine, a former big-league outfielder who now scouts for the Blue Jays. Before long, that endorsement had turned into an offer.

“A thousand bucks and a plane ticket, pretty much,” Rees says.

He wasn’t about to negotiate.

“Of course,” he told the Blue Jays, and his professional career began. The 16 appearances that followed in 2018 were largely unremarkable. Rees posted a 5.06 ERA despite being two years older than the average rookie ball player – just about what you’d expect from a player who wasn’t even drafted.

But in the year since, Rees has put himself on the radar of major-league decision makers with a combination of movement and deception that’s proving too much for minor-league hitters. Rees dominated at low-A Lansing and high-A Dunedin this year before earning a spot in the Arizona Fall League, where he was named an AFL all-star on Tuesday.

Credit: Ben Nicholson-Smith/Sportsnet

“Something happened,” he says. “I really don’t know what, but it worked.”

The Blue Jays certainly aren’t complaining.

“He’s been a guy we’re very excited about,” Kim says. “Coming into the year he wasn’t necessarily on people’s radar, but he definitely put himself on the map.”

Though it wasn’t visible at the time, Rees learned some necessary lessons during his pro debut in 2018. Whenever he threw anything straight, hitters squared it up. With that in mind, he resolved to keep opponents off-balance and avoid repeating sequences when possible.

Then came his off-season work. Rees lifted weights most days and talked pitching with some trusted coaches. He felt strong when he opened the season at Lansing, but nobody foresaw the 0.36 ERA, or the 44 strikeout to four walk ratio he posted in 25.1 innings. A promotion to Dunedin followed mid-season, and he continued to excel at high-A, with a 0.99 ERA and 44 strikeouts compared to 11 walks.

“It was a little bit surprising,” he acknowledges. “I thought for sure there would be some point where, OK, they’re going to adjust or they’re going to hit me.”

In Kim’s view, the six-foot-four Rees proves challenging for hitters because of his deceptive delivery. Hitters rarely get comfortable standing in against him.

“I’ve always been deceptive,” Rees says. “It’s funky mechanics. Everything moves. It gets on you, so you never feel comfortable if I’m throwing strikes.”

“On top of that,” he adds, smiling, “My stuff just has gotten better, which I’ve really come to like.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Though Rees will throw some change-ups and curves, he relies primarily on a sinking fastball in the 91-94 m.p.h. range and a slider some describe as a gyro-slider because of its unusual rotation.

“He’s very aggressive attacking hitters and his slider, sometimes, is unhittable,” says Cesar Martin, who managed Rees in Dunedin and again in the AFL. “The good thing is he knows it and he can locate it very well.”

That’s certainly been the case in Arizona, where Rees has seven strikeouts in his first 4.0 innings of work with no walks allowed. Even then, he remains something of a longshot, nowhere to be found on top prospect lists at Baseball America, MLB Pipeline or FanGraphs. Further challenges await him in the upper minors where his stuff may not play as well.

Once the AFL season ends, Rees will head home to California for another winter of workouts. Since there’s little point in slow-playing the development of a 25-year-old reliever, a double-A assignment would make some sense next spring. And once you’re in the upper-minors, anything’s possible, right? Having enjoyed a little unexpected success already, Rees is certainly hoping for more.

“If it’s anywhere close to this year, I’ll be happy,” he says.

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