The Minnesota Twins announced the field staff that’ll surround first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, and it’s a mix of familiar faces, newcomers and a pair of coaches in new roles.
Derek Shelton will return as bench coach, along with James Rowson and Rudy Hernandez in their previous roles as hitting coaches. Jeremy Hefner will transition from his role as an advance video scout to take over the bullpen coach role vacated by Eddie Guardado as well as being assistant pitching coach. Tommy Watkins will make the jump from managing High-A Fort Myers to first-base coach and replace Jeff Smith, who may remain in the organization in a different capacity.
Tony Diaz joins the Twins as third base coach — replacing Gene Glynn — from the Colorado Rockies organization, where he was the team’s first-base coach the last two seasons. According to the team’s press release, Diaz was inducted into the Pioneer League Hall of Fame in 2013 and was named Colorado’s Player Development “Man of the Year” in 2002.
Diaz also wrote a book entitled Practical English for Latin Players, according to the team’s release.
Johnson is maybe the most notable hire, since he’s making the jump from the college ranks. Johnson was the pitching coach at the University of Arkansas over the last two years, and prior to that worked with Mississippi State, Dallas Baptist and Central Arkansas in the same capacity.
An industry source told Zone Coverage that the Twins were one team who expressed interest in Oregon State coach Nate Yeskie, but all teams were told he had no interest in leaving his post with the Beavers.
Johnson is regarded as a high-energy, analytically-inclined pitching mind who is known for his work ethic and communication skills.
Arguably his best success story in the college ranks is Brandon Koch, started out as a shortstop at Dallas Baptist and posted a 7.80 ERA in his first year of pitching. The next year, Koch posted a 0.64 ERA in 42 innings — 70-22 K/BB ratio, 1.11 WHIP — and in his junior year he posted a 1.26 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 24 walks in 43 innings.
That was enough for Koch to be drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the fourth round that year, and after missing the 2017 season, the 24-year-old righty came back to post a 1.76 ERA in High-A this year.
Koch is one of Johnson’s most ardent supporters.
“Wes really showed me the way my body worked as a pitcher,” Koch told Zone Coverage. “Before I was more of a thrower and just got up there and threw it as hard as I could. But he showed me to pitch with intent. He was also super big on work ethic and intensity. He also was the first guy to ever talk with me about tunneling and sequencing. He was a mastermind behind that stuff and that’s when I really started to have success.”
Koch raved about Johnson’s energy level, but it’s not just rah-rah stuff, either.
“I feel he’s a mix between the energizer bunny and a pit bull,” Koch said with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, he’s a super intense guy with a ton of energy. But his energy is always focused. He has a reason behind everything he does.”
One thing the Twins haven been fairly good about under the Derek Falvey-Thad Levine regime is avoiding cronyism with coaching hires. There haven’t been many hires that can be directly tied to former teammates or anything like that, but instead, a different approach has been taken.
Koch isn’t surprised the big leagues came calling for Johnson — at least for the most part.
“Part of me isn’t surprised one bit,” he said. “When you talk about baseball and development, he’s the No. 1 guy you always hear. And he has succeeded everywhere he has gone. And another part of me is surprised because pro and Division I baseball are so different. But when you see the way the game is evolving (ex. Driveline, analytics), it makes complete that he is breaking into the big leagues straight from a college campus.”
Before anyone gets too wound up, this isn’t strictly a numbers/analytics hire; Johnson is keenly aware of the old school.
“He realizes that analytics can only get you so far,” Koch said. “He is big on teaching the numbers, what they mean, and how you should use them as a pitcher. But he also teaches you how to compete.”
Current Astros farmhand Cy Sneed also played for Johnson at Dallas Baptist, and is thrilled that his former coach is getting a chance at the game’s highest level.
“I love WJ,” Sneed told Zone Coverage. “I’m very excited for him.”
Sneed reiterated Johnson’s energy level and how it translates to his work ethic, which is tireless.
“He is all about work ethic and intent,” Sneed said. “In my time with him, he was excellent in instructing not only mechanics and pitches but also mentality and mental toughness which I think sets him apart”
Overall, Johnson is just a great man to be around, Sneed said. That’s important in a role that is not only about instruction, but communication, if not a little bit amateur psychologist as well.
“(He’s a) great guy to be around every day, he really helped me in every aspect of my career,” Sneed said.
Sneed also agreed that Johnson isn’t distinctly one way or the other when it comes to analytics or old-school methods, but rather that he just wants to figure out what works for each pitcher individually.
“He is a tip-of-the-spear kind of guy,” Sneed said. “Constantly learning about the new technologies that can be utilized and incorporating the ones that are useful while still keeping ”old school” training exercises that work in daily use.”
Johnson has come a long way from humble beginnings as a high-school coach, Sneed added.
“(Johnson) has come a long way from where he started as a high school coach and math teacher and that he isn’t done yet!”
The final coach added was Bill Evers, who will instruct catchers and sort of reprise the role left by Jeff Pickler, who according to LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune will move onto a different role within the organization.
Evers was the manager of the Durham Bulls during their inaugural 1998 season.
Evers was Baldelli’s manager in Triple-A Durham back in 2002, and he presided over some pretty great prospects back in those days. Carl Crawford, Melvin Upton Jr., Chad Gaudin, Joey Gathright, Dewon Brazelton, Jason Hammel, James Shields, Jorge Cantu, Delmon Young, Jared Sandberg, Aubrey Huff, Jose Guillen, Jason Tyner, Randy Winn, Dan Wheeler and Jonny Gomes were all fairly well-regarded prospects who developed under Evers’ watch with the Bulls (1998-2005).
He also managed current Rays manager Kevin Cash, current Mariners hitting coach Tim Laker and current Mets manager Mickey Callaway with the Bulls, too.
Prior to Tuesday night’s deadline, the Twins added the following players to the 40-man roster:
- Infielder Nick Gordon
- Outfielder LaMonte Wade
- Infielder Luis Arraez
Adding these two protects them from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft, which happens at the end of the Winter Meetings every year.
Notable players the Twins left unprotected include relievers Jake Reed and Tyler Jay (team’s No. 22 prospect via MLB.com), infielders Lewin Diaz (No. 16) and Zander Wiel and outfielder Jaylin Davis.
“(Gordon has) improved his contact rate but selling out to pull tendencies, likely by design to improve power profile,” a scouting contact told Zone Coverage recently. Gordon obliterated Double-A Chattanooga (.906 OPS) to earn a call-up to Rochester in late May, but hit just .212/.262/.283 in 99 games with the Red Wings — split 69 at shortstop, 30 at second base.
Gordon is the team’s No. 4 prospect according to MLB.com.
Wade might be the heir apparent to the Robbie Grossman OBP throne, and he’s a solid athlete who also got a little power-happy last year.
“(Wade) has a tweener profile who is a plus athlete, sold out to pull-power to improve profile, lost contact rate in the process.”
Wade is a career .284/.391/.420 hitter in four minor-league seasons with the Twins, and is coming off hitting .257/.360/.380 in 120 games between Chattanooga and Rochester. His power numbers dipped significantly (.336 slugging percentage) with the Red Wings.
MLB.com lists Wade as the team’s No. 13 prospect.
The contact was a bit on the pessimistic side about Arraez, who makes a ton of contact but doesn’t do much else.
“(He has a) below-average tool shed outside of spectacular contact tool and bat control. Hard to find fit outside of bench role,” the contact said.
Arraez hit .310/.361/.397 between Fort Myers and Chattanooga last season after tearing his ACL in 2017, and played mostly second base but also saw a little time at short, third and in left field as well last season.
Arraez is the team’s No. 15 prospect according to MLB.com.
The Twins have also made the following minor-league signings over the past week:
- Infielder Randy Cesar
- Right-handed pitcher Preston Guilmet
- Right-handed pitcher Zack Weiss
- Right-handed pitcher Ryne Harper
- Catcher Wynston Sawyer
Cesar drew attention for a 42-game hitting streak with Double-A Corpus Christi (Astros) last year, spanning from May 5 to June 28 during which he hit .391/.428/.627. Overall, he hit .296/.348/.428, and was among the Astros’ top-30 prospects on MLB.com, though he won’t appear on the Twins’ list according to Jim Callis, who told Zone Coverage he’s more of an organizational talent in a deeper prospect pool like Minnesota has.
Over his seven-year minor-league career, Cesar has hit .271/.334/.371 while playing mostly third base (3,431.1 defensive innings) with a little time at first (521.1 innings). Cesar turns 24 in January, and is eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft next month.
Guilmet, 31, comes from the Matt Magill school of pitching, where he has a 9.27 ERA in 33 MLB innings but has been very, very good in the minors — 2.62 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9.
Guilmet was especially good with Triple-A Memphis (Cardinals) this past season, tossing 29 innings with a 0.93 ERA (three earned runs), 0.48 WHIP and 35-4 K/UIBB rate.
Weiss briefly surfaced to make his MLB debut on April 12 last year with the Reds, but it went poorly as he did not record an out while giving up a pair of homers — to Jose Martinez and Yadier Molina — and four earned runs total.
Weiss was Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick in the 2013 draft, and ranked No. 22 on Baseball America’s Reds prospect list after 2015 and No. 27 the next year. The first year’s report suggested he was 92-96 mph with his fastball — which they deemed ‘plus’ — as well as a pair of ‘plus’ breaking balls in the curve and slider.
Weiss then missed 2016 with an elbow injury — that did not require surgery at the time — and went unselected in the Rule 5 draft after posting a 2.42 ERA at Double-A Pensacola in 2015 with 11.8 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.
Weiss underwent surgery eventually in December of 2016 to move his ulnar nerve and clean up some scar tissue, and again looked very good between High-A Dayton and Double-A Pensacola — 2.63 ERA, 12.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 1.05 WHIP.
Weiss barely pitched in the Reds organization last year, totaling 25 innings across three minor-league levels — as well as his brief MLB stint — with a 5.40 ERA, 9.4 K/9 and 7.2 BB/9.
He was released in early September.
Harper and Sawyer are both re-signings, with both reaching Triple-A Rochester last season. Harper posted a 3.60 ERA with 11.9 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9 in 65 innings between Chattanooga and Rochester, while Sawyer hit .257/.387/.347 in 36 games between the same two levels.
Sawyer threw out an impressive 12 of 25 attempted base thieves (48 percent).