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Zulgad’s Roundup: Terrible timing: Wes Johnson’s decision to quit leaves Twins in a lurch

Wes Johnson
FILE – Minnesota Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson, right, holds a meeting on the mound with pitcher Taylor Rogers and catcher Mitch Garver during a baseball game in Minneapolis on Aug. 11, 2019. Johnson has informed the club he will leave his job, reportedly for the same role at LSU. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

If Wes Johnson had stepped down as the Twins’ pitching coach after the season to take the same job at LSU, it would have come as a surprise but would have given the team time to replace a guy who had a large part in shaping the organization’s pitching philosophy. But the fact the news of Johnson’s departure for the college ranks first surfaced Sunday, and will take effect at the end of the Twins’ five-game series Thursday in Cleveland, presents a list of unwelcome challenges for the AL Central leaders.

Manager Rocco Baldelli relied heavily on Johnson — as did a front office led by president of baseball operations Derek Falvey — and now he is walking away with 83 games remaining. Assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez, bullpen coach Pete Maki and run prevention coordinator Colby Suggs are expected to help replace Johnson but that means adjusting at a time when consistency is key.

“It does create some juggling,” Falvey told reporters Monday. “Our plan here is to work with the internal group that we have to step into Wes’ role.”

Baldelli receives much of the attention for any in-game decision making, but the days of the manager truly running the show are gone. Baldelli gets plenty of guidance from the front office on down, and it was Johnson who held much of the responsibility when it came to pitching decisions.

It would be wishful thinking to assume this transition will be seamless. Falvey will have to decide if he’s looking at Ramirez, Maki or Suggs to take over for Johnson, or if they will return to their current roles in 2023 and a new pitching coach will be hired to oversee much of how the Twins develop their pitchers from the minor leagues on up.

While the the Twins could use another starter or a couple of arms in the bullpen if they want to have a chance to make a playoff run, or end an 18-game postseason losing streak, the pitching has definitely improved from a disappointing 2021. The Twins went from being ninth in ERA in 2019 and fourth in 2020, to falling to 26th last season (4.83 ERA). Minnesota entered Tuesday’s doubleheader in Cleveland with a 3.74 ERA to rank eighth in the big leagues.

Johnson came to the Twins from the college ranks at Arkansas in 2019 in large part because of his background in biomechanics and the fact he has a master’s degree in kinesiology. The Twins felt this knowledge would give them an edge over their competitors as he was paired with Baldelli in the dugout.

Johnson, who pointed to family reasons for his abrupt departure, reportedly received a three-year contract worth $1.14 million that will run through June 2025. His annual base salary will be $380,000. The Athletic reported Johnson was making $400,000 a year with the Twins, so he won’t be getting the significant raise that initially was reported Sunday.

Could Johnson have stayed with the Twins through the remainder of the season? Evidently that wasn’t an option that LSU presented.

“Knowing Wes and getting a chance to enjoy him and see him all these years, it’s not incredibly surprising to see him go back to the college game,” Baldelli told reporters. “Am I incredibly happy to see it happen in the middle of the season? Of course not. No one is. There’s no way around that discussion, but I’m not surprised to see him going back to something he has a passion for and he loves and he’s really good at.”

Baldelli’s honesty spoke volumes. He might be happy for Johnson, but the pitching coach’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

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