Twins lose out on late-bloomer Hawkins

Zipping through last night's headlines ...

Twins, Guardado still talking, lose Hawkins
Did you know that LaTroy Hawkins is almost 31 years old, and his career ERA is 5.05?

It's all true. For five years, the Twins tried to prove to the world that LaTroy Hawkins really was a major-league starting pitcher. And for five years, Hawkins was terrible.

How terrible? At the conclusion of the 1999 season, Hawkins had started 98 games, resulting in 26 wins, 44 losses, and a 6.06 ERA. This, I think, would have been impossible to predict. But right now, looking at Hawkins' minor-league numbers in the Baseball Register, it's not a complete shock that he struggled in the majors.

I remember what we used to think about Hawkins. I remember thinking that he had great stuff -- that's what everybody said -- and I remember thinking that he had some pretty great numbers, too. But now, looking at them, I realize they weren't really all that great.

In 1993, Hawkins led the Class A Midwest League with 15 wins, a 2.06 ERA, and (this is the one that gets people like me going) 179 strikeouts in only 157 innings.

In 1994, Hawkins dominated Class A hitters again (4-0, 2.33), moved up a level and fared well against Double-A hitters (9-2, 2.33), moved up another level and held his own against Triple-A hitters (5-4, 4.08). One thing, though ... his strikeout rate kept going down. In Class A that season, he struck out eight batters per nine innings. In Double-A, he struck out 6.5 batters per nine innings. And in Triple-A, he struck out four batters per nine innings.

That probably should have been a warning sign. Not a big red flashing warning sign, but a warning sign nevertheless.

The Twins didn't see it. Hawkins opened the '95 season in the big club's rotation, and he got murdered: six starts, 8.67 ERA ... and only nine strikeouts in 27 innings. Hawkins actually spent most of '95 back in Triple-A, and again his strikeout rate was nothing special, 4.6 per nine innings.

And that's really the story of Hawkins' career as a starter above the Class A level: He didn't "miss the bat," as the scouts sometimes say. As I understand it, Hawkins could throw his fastball in the mid-90s, but his mid-90s fastball was straight as a string. Major leaguers can hit that pitch, and Hawkins didn't really have anything else.

Baseball men are obsessed with mid-90s fastballs, though, so the Twins kept running Hawkins out there and he kept getting hammered. His MLB ERAs after '95 are like something from an old pitcher's nightmares ... 8.20 ... 5.84 ... 5.25 ... wait for it ... 6.66! Maybe it was that last number that sent a message, because the Twins finally moved Hawkins to the bullpen. Which wasn't the unalloyed success that you might believe. In 2000, his first season as a relief pitcher, Hawkins converted all 14 of his save chances, but his other stats weren't so hot. And the next season, he pitched just as poorly as he had when starting.

But the Twins didn't give up, and in 2002, after seven seasons, they finally got the LaTroy Hawkins they'd always thought they had. Hawkins' strikeout rate still isn't outstanding, not for a reliever who throws as hard as he does. But his strikeout rate is good, and he's also figured out how to keep the ball in the ballpark. Since going to the bullpen, Hawkins has given up only 19 home runs in 288 innings (his control's been solid, too).

And now Hawkins is gone. The Twins had him for nine years. They got two great seasons, one good one, and six terrible seasons, which makes you think maybe they should have moved him to the bullpen sooner than they did. But I think that points to one of the game's Great Unanswered Questions ... How many chances do you give a young starting pitcher with great stuff before you try something else?

Lowell staying with Marlins (Castillo, too)
I'm thrilled. Not because I think the Marlins are going to shock the world (again!), but because now everybody who thought owner Jeffrey Loria was going to denude the roster are looking pretty silly. And will look sillier if the Marlins re-sign Ivan Rodriguez. Yes, the Marlins have lost Derrek Lee and they'll likely lose Mark Redman. I think the Phillies are the team to beat in 2004 and let's not count out the Braves. But these aren't your big brother's Marlins, and they'll be competitive next season.

A-Rod call to Showalter breaks the silence
This is one of those stories that's only interesting because everybody thinks it's a story. If you know what I mean. Yes, Alex Rodriguez went six weeks without talking to his manager. So what? Did Mickey Mantle get in touch with Casey Stengel every November? On April 5, 2004, the American League's best player will be at shortstop when the Rangers open their season. And that's all that matters.

Nutraquest blames Orioles for Bechler's death
In case you didn't read the story (I wish I hadn't), Nutraquest is the company that manufactured the diet pills that may have contributed to Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler's fatal heatstroke last February. Bechler's widow is suing Nutraquest for $600 million, and Nutraquest has asked a judge to blame the Orioles instead, essentially arguing that Bechler was so fat that he shouldn't have been allowed on the field in the first place.

Like I said, I wish I hadn't read the story.

Meadows agrees to one-year deal with Pirates
Yes, I know. Yawn. But seeing this sent me to The Bill James Handbook, wherein I discovered this notable fact: In 2003, Brian Meadows pitched 51 innings in Triple-A, where he struck out 40 hitters ... and walked nobody. Meadows doesn't have the stuff to be more than a fifth starter in the major leagues. But if you're looking for an ace in Nashville or Omaha, he's your man.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.