Prospect Jackson Rees talks about his college days, signing with the Blue Jays, and overcoming adversity
7 months ago
During his senior year at Laguna Beach High School, right-hander Jackson Rees was pitching well and looking to continue his baseball career, although, he wasn’t getting as much attention as he had hoped for while being named the league MVP and the Pitcher of the Year.
“Out of high school, I was one our team’s top pitchers but our school was small, so even though I was doing well, it seemed hard to get noticed considering there was a lot of talent to choose from within my area in California.”
Rees decided to head to Saddleback College and joined the Bobcats, located in Mission Viejo, California, “I decided Saddleback was the best option after high school, and I thought I would go there for a year or two, to improve my luck to join a four-year program hopefully,” said Rees, “I had shoulder impingement in my first year, got a medical redshirt, and then in the following season, I tried to gain weight and lift heavy and hurt my back, earning another medical redshirt during the season.”
Blue Jays prospect Jackson Rees sat down with BJN to talk about his college playing days, his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and how he hopes to inspire future baseball players
After his three seasons with Saddleback, Rees started inquiring and emailing four-year college programs, eventually gaining the attention of the University of Hawaii. With numerous players leaving the program following the 2016 season, the right-hander saw an opportunity to pitch with the Big West program.
With the Rainbow Warriors, Rees amassed a 3.99 ERA through 29 appearances (26) starts, striking out batters at a 5.4 K/9 rate while struggling with the walks at times, amassing a 3.9 BB/9. The Friday night starter for the squad during the 2018 season, Rees had some options at his disposal after he graduated later that year, “I had two pretty good years at Hawaii, I graduated, and I knew that I could either return to the squad, look at becoming a graduate transfer to another program, or try my luck in the draft. Considering I didn’t have to make a decision right away and the draft was happening anyway, that left me with a few open doors to see where the year would take me.”
Rees and the MLB Draft
During the MLB Draft, Rees was contacted by a couple of teams throughout the three days, including the Toronto Blue Jays and the Atlanta Braves, and it looked like his chance to play professional baseball was right around the corner.
“There was a chance I could be selected on Day 2, I got some calls around the seventh and tenth round area where college seniors are usually selected but those rounds eventually passed, and the next day I was looking towards later rounds and was still fielding a bunch of calls, and I said yes to every offer a team presented me.”
Unfortunately for Rees, he would not hear his name called those days, which was a bit of a setback but he knew he still had his options: return to Hawaii or look at transferring to another program for one more year. That is until the Blue Jays called again.
“I didn’t get drafted and I really thought I had a chance to be selected during day three, which was honestly a bit heartbreaking. I was going through my options when I received a call from Jim Lentine (the Blue Jays San Clemente, California area scout), who I met a few times during our trips to California, and he mentioned a Minor League free agent spot could potentially be available, and right from the get-go I was pretty interested in that opportunity. My fear was that if I said no to this potential offer from the Blue Jays, would other colleges accept me on a grad transfer? Would I still put up solid numbers in Hawaii? Two days later, he called me back and said we have a spot, gave me a $1000 dollar signing bonus and a plane ticket, and I signed it with no hesitation.”
On June 13, 2018, Jackson Rees was officially a professional baseball player. Five days later, he was across the country, suiting up in Florida, where he would eventually finish the season split between the Gulf Coast Blue Jays and the Bluefield Blue Jays, both in Rookie Ball. One of the first things Rees noticed between his time at Hawaii versus pitching in Rookie Ball was the quality at-bats from his opponents, “The approaches were way different from pro baseball players compared to college ball, where they have the mentality of ‘if I see a fastball I am ripping it’, and I found out early that my offspeed was very effective, so I am going to keep throwing that to generate outs. I learned that pretty early on and took that into 2019 (his first full season).”
In 2019, Rees made the jump to A ball, starting the year in Lansing (Single-A) before finishing the year in Advanced-A Dunedin, where he pitched to a 0.73 ERA across 61.2 innings collectively, racking up nine saves and finishing 30 games while authoring a 0.892 WHIP. This impressive season was capped off by a short stint in the Arizona Fall League, with Rees getting the call and making quick work of the opportunity, “Two weeks after the season ended, I got the call and was asked about my interest in joining the Arizona Fall League and I immediately said yes. I was then told that everybody was showing up the next day in Scottsdale, so I drove that morning to Arizona, which was about a six-hour drive for me.”
Tommy John Surgery for the Blue Jays Prospect
For Rees and the majority of Minor League players, the following 2020 season was a wash due to COVID-19, with most players not getting any game action other than intrasquads or potentially at alternate training sites. While he didn’t know it at the time, the 6’4″ right-hander was about to embark on a journey that would be one of the biggest tests of his baseball career.
“I was throwing a bullpen in Spring Training prior to the shutdown and while I didn’t feel a pop, I knew it wasn’t 100%. I finished the bullpen, took some days off, and threw another bullpen, but it wasn’t bouncing back. We did a bunch of tests, and I got an MRI, which revealed a low-grade two tear in my UCL. I didn’t get surgery at the time and was rehabbing and training, getting it back into shape with the season cancelled. I then got invited to Spring Training the following season in 2021 and pitched a couple of innings against the Yankees before being sent down to AAA, where I started the season. I pitched three times that Opening week with Buffalo and on that Sunday outing my forearm gave out and it just wasn’t strong enough to withstand what I was throwing. After weighing the recovery options, Tommy John was the best route to get 100% healthy.”
Coming off an impressive season in 2019 to missing 2020 and now staring down the barrel of missing most of 2021 and potentially 2022, Rees was now on the sidelines and was forced to rehab and recover, which didn’t break his spirit or mentality, “Had I undergone Tommy John surgery earlier in 2020, I might not have gotten the opportunity to pitch in Spring Training or skip a few levels and go to AAA to open the 2021 season. I know I had to miss most of 2021 and a good portion of 2022, but there were some good things that came out of this whole scenario that I believe really helped my career.”
Rees would return late in 2022, spending time in the low Minor League levels before rejoining the Bisons in mid-August, where he made nine appearances to finish out the year.
Fast forward to today, and Rees is gearing up for another spring on the big league side, with the relief pitcher earning an invite to Major League Spring Training in late January along with some other top prospects in the organization. With his arm fully healed and this past offseason under his belt, the Hawaii alum is focusing on limiting the free passes and showing the Jays what he can do on the mound.
“It’s nice to go into bullpens and live batting practice knowing that my arm is bouncing back well and mentally, that is such a good feeling. This winter, I have really been focusing on executing all my pitches and working on my location so I can limit the walks this year and throw not just more strikes, but quality strikes and hopefully generate weak contact and groundballs. Now is the time to prove myself considering I am healthy and I can contribute to this team, whether it is in AAA or the big leagues.”
Rees hopes to inspire future baseball players
At 28 years old, Rees has been a professional baseball player for over four seasons, with his career going through multiple hurdles along the way. From injuries impacting his time in JUCO ball with Saddleback College to joining the University of Hawaii and becoming an effective starter, and eventually taking a chance on a Minor League free-agent spot with the Blue Jays, the California product hopes his story is one that inspires others looking to pursue their baseball goals and dreams.
“Not every player is going to go in the first round and get millions of dollars in their signing bonus. Some people take years to figure it out, whether it is going to a four-year college program or to JUCO ball, whether it is overcoming injuries or personal struggles, there is always a chance to continue playing if you say ‘yes’ to opportunities.”
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