Mackey: Explaining the fall of Slowey, in which both sides share blame
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DALLAS -- On Tuesday, the Minnesota Twins sold low on right-hander Kevin Slowey.
There's really no other way to describe trading a 27-year-old former second-round draft pick with a history of success who posted an 0-8 record with a 6.67 ERA in 2011.
"He was a high pick for us, he had ceiling, he had success in the minor leagues," general manager Terry Ryan said Tuesday. "I think our hopes for him were quite high, and justifiably so. ... I thought highly of him, and I think a lot of people thought highly of him. It didn't work out so well."
So what the hell happened? And who deserves the blame?
In reality, both sides deserve a portion.
Blackburn and Baker each underwent minor elbow surgery in the offseason, and Baker's spring routine was stalled early on due to discomfort, mostly when throwing his changeup.
Meanwhile, Slowey was deemed perfectly healthy after some triceps discomfort slowed him late in the 2010 season.
Manager Ron Gardenhire quickly narrowed the race when he named Blackburn a starter on March 7 after a solid outing in Port Charlotte, leaving the final spot for Baker and Slowey to battle over. Slowey heard about this news over the internet before Gardenhire or pitching coach Rick Anderson had a chance to speak to him.
On March 22, Gardenhire officially declared Baker the team's fifth starter, which turned out to be a wise decision, as Baker posted a 3.14 ERA with 123 strikeouts in 134 2/3 innings before elbow problems sidelined him after the All-Star break.
At the time, Slowey had a right to be disappointed, at least to some degree. To the extent that spring training numbers matter, Slowey out-pitched everybody. On top of that, Baker admitted to mild elbow discomfort as late as March 20.
Slowey felt like it wasn't a fair competition, sources with knowledge of the situation said, and maybe it wasn't. Maybe Slowey was always the odd man out. After all, Baker and Blackburn had each signed long-term contracts in prior seasons, and neither had spent much time pitching out of the bullpen previously.
Whether Slowey was the odd man out all along, or whether he lost the competition fair and square, the responsibility fell at least partially on the shoulders of someone behind the scenes -- Gardenhire, Anderson, general manager Bill Smith or somebody else -- to find a way to connect better with Slowey about his role.
From there, things only spiraled downward.
Despite the Twins' shortage of quality relief pitchers, Slowey never fully embraced his bullpen role, thus crossing the line from being disappointed to being a malcontent.
Gardenhire wanted him to start the season as a key seventh- and eighth-inning guy, but Slowey told Gardenhire and Anderson that he was having problems adjusting to the new warm-up routines, the unpredictable pitching schedule and other aspects of being a reliever.
Slowey would be placed on the disabled list just a handful of games into the season, on April 9, with shoulder discomfort.
Asked to elaborate on the nature of the injury, Slowey was short with reporters, saying, "I think we'll probably just stick with what the (press) release said. Just go with that for now."
He added, "I'm certainly not a medical professional, so asking me to sort of figure out or extrapolate what caused it, I think wouldn't be very fair to me to say what caused it."
This exchange was a microcosm of Slowey's relationship with reporters over the past couple years -- a relationship that seemed to sour since his call-up in 2007. Slowey didn't always believe in sharing information with the public, and he even went out of his way at times to share this philosophy with teammates.
Is this annoying for media members who have jobs to do? Yes. Should it be the driving reason for disparaging Slowey? No.
Slowey spent 32 days sidelined with the sore shoulder before being activated from the disabled list on May 6. During his rehab assignment the Twins stretched Slowey out over multiple innings as a backup plan for Francisco Liriano, who struggled mightily during the first month of the season.
"That's kind of why we're working on Slowey, getting him stretched out," Gardenhire said on April 29, "in case we decide after this next start whether we're going to do something or not (with Liriano)."
As it turned out, Liriano threw a no-hitter in his next start, further solidifying Slowey's return to the bullpen -- a return that lasted two weeks.
Slowey appeared in only three games between May 7 and May 22, and Gardenhire expressed his frustration to curious reporters, saying, "It's been real hard. We were asking him to be able to step up and give us some big innings, and it's been real hard."
Slowey told Gardenhire and Anderson he was having trouble getting loose for back-to-back outings, which put the Twins and their already-struggling bullpen in a massive bind.
But the sense behind the scenes was that Slowey wasn't willing to get loose for back-to-back outings -- that he still wasn't willing to embrace his bullpen role.
At the time, none of the Twins' five starters warranted a demotion out of the bullpen -- Blackburn and Liriano had bounced back from poor Aprils, Pavano was the staff's highest-paid pitcher, and both Baker and Duensing were cruising along for the most part.
On May 22, Gardenhire mentioned sending Slowey to Rochester so he could get some starts under his belt, but the right-hander revealed he was experiencing some abdominal discomfort. An MRI showed no inflammation and no tear, but Slowey sought a second opinion with Edina-based hernia specialist Dr. Bradley Pierce. The hernia exam came back negative, but Slowey was diagnosed with a mild acute rectus abdominis strain.
Slowey remained on the disabled list from May 21 (retroactive) until July 22, when he was officially demoted to Triple-A Rochester, but he first hinted at the possibility of a trade on July 5 in an interview with the Rochester Baseball Observer.
Injuries eventually depleted the Twins' pitching rotation enough to where Slowey was recalled to start two handfuls of games at the end of the season. It didn't go well.
Slowey finished the season 0-8 with a 6.67 ERA, 4.47 FIP and 78 hits allowed (10 home runs) in only 59 1/3 innings, capping perhaps the most forgettable season in his professional career.
Add to that the fact that Slowey -- likely owed about $3 million through arbitration this year -- hasn't thrown more than 160 1/3 innings in a major league season since his call-up in 2007 and he wasn't exactly the most valuable trade commodity.
But the Twins -- in desperate need of quality, affordable starting pitching -- were willing to sell low anyway, for a player to be named later from the Colorado Rockies.
"I think it's probably good for Kevin," Ryan said. "Sometimes there's a change of scenery, and that's probably beneficial. It's as simple as that. There's nothing more, nothing less to it. I explained that to him this morning. Changing leagues, changing cities, changing organizations, sometimes that's a good thing for a player. Hopefully it will be for him. And the Rockies."
Ryan, who admittedly hasn't spent much time around Slowey over the last couple years, is big on what he calls "makeup" -- leadership, accountability with the media, coachability, and other non-physical traits.
According to multiple sources familiar with the Twins' behind-the-scenes dynamics, Slowey was slipping in many of those "makeup" categories. Sources say Slowey also lost trust in Gardenhire, Anderson and others in the organization.
On the other side of the wall, there was a sense behind the scenes that Slowey was in no real hurry to return from his rehab assignment.
That part of the equation, quite frankly, is difficult and dangerous to dissect.
In the end, the Twins sold low on a promising 27-year-old arm in large part because of personality and philosophical clashes that had very little to do with on-field performance. Slowey wasn't traded because he had a bad season. If that was the case, the entire 40-man roster should be on the block.
But most importantly, Slowey didn't have enough of a track record to be a malcontent about his role on a major league team. Yet malcontent is probably the most fitting word to describe Slowey in 2011. He was paid $2.7 million to be a professional and make the adjustment to the bullpen -- an adjustment hundreds of pitchers make every year in professional baseball. And chances are, Slowey would have been the first man summoned when one of the other starters inevitably struggled or developed arm issues.
What could have been? We'll never know.