CLEVELAND – Carlos Correa was settled in for the Twins’ hourlong flight to Cleveland, gearing up for five games in four days with the AL Central lead in flux. He connected his phone to the Wi-Fi and opened up Twitter, naturally.
He read the first tweet on his timeline twice. Then checked if the account that tweeted it was verified. Then asked seatmate Gio Urshela to read it, too.
Both were in disbelief, so Correa walked back to staff’s section, specifically to pitching coach Wes Johnson.
“That’s when he told me that he had a great opportunity for himself and his family at LSU,” Correa said.
Johnson was picking up in the middle of a first-place season and moving to Baton Rouge, La., to be the Tigers’ pitching coach. LSU had courted Johnson last season as well. But that accelerated this past week, and the aggressive pitch became an offer Thursday. Johnson accepted Sunday. Johnson didn’t have a chance between Sunday’s game and flight to properly inform the team before the news leaked.
Correa said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli at first told him to keep what he learned about Johnson on the down low.
“By the time I walked back to my seat, the guys are like, ‘What were you talking to Rocco about?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Are you talking about Wes? What do you guys know?’ ‘He’s leaving,’ ” Correa recounted. “I think everybody knew by the time we landed.”
The Twins pulled together impromptu meetings at the hotel, where Baldelli, Johnson and President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey confirmed the reports.
Players were shocked. If coaches depart midseason, it’s usually because the team is losing games and staff are losing jobs. Johnson was leaving a good team to take the same position at a lower level, albeit at a school in the powerhouse SEC.
Johnson made history when he joined the Twins staff after the 2018 season straight from the University of Arkansas. He’s an integral part of the coaching staff, helping Baldelli — an outfielder in his playing days — make decisions around all things pitching.
Johnson was a hit, as the Twins won division titles in 2019 and ’20. The 2021 season was a steep drop-off, with a 4.83 staff ERA. But with an entirely rebuilt starting rotation in 2022, Johnson brought that collective ERA down to 3.78.
Why Johnson would elect to leave such a plum situation came down to three core values.
“I tell people my priorities. It’s my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, one. It’s my family, two. And it’s baseball, three,” Johnson said. “I’m never going to get those out of whack.”
The MLB lifestyle can strain that work-life balance. The 50-year-old and his wife, Angie, have three children: Ryan, Anna and Ava. The latter two are still in middle and high school in Johnson’s native Arkansas. And with a 162-game season, plus a couple of months of spring training, Johnson was missing family moments.
The college season is much less demanding, though the year-round recruiting seems to be a big factor in his quick departure. The Lafayette Daily Advertiser reported Johnson’s LSU contract has a $380,000 yearly base salary for three years, plus a $800 per month vehicle allowance and $25,000 relocation incentive.
Johnson said this was “the toughest thing” he’s ever done. It has also put the Twins in a tough spot, having to replace a key staff member by Friday once Johnson officially leaves after this series.
“We want to be respectful to everyone in the room, talk to different people, different staff members. It does create some juggling,” Falvey said. “Our plan here is to work with the internal group that we have to step into Wes’ role.”
Likely candidates are assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez, bullpen coach Pete Maki and run prevention coordinator Colby Suggs, though the team has emphasized it will be a group effort to finish this season.
Several pitchers were happy for Johnson’s new opportunity, but sad to lose his guidance. Starter Chris Archer, who has been in the league since 2012 and dealt with major injuries in recent years, said Johnson has a way of making pitchers believe in themselves again, which will last even after he’s gone.
“He really helped re-instill confidence in me every day,” Archer said. “… He’s the best pitching coach I’ve ever had, top to bottom. Analytics, biomechanics, instilling confidence, game plan. Every single facet you could think of, he’s been the best.”
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