Uncertainty surrounded the final spot in the Minnesota Twins’ pitching rotation entering Spring Training, especially after they opted not to bring in Jake Odorizzi. While Matt Shoemaker was in the mix for the fifth starter spot, Randy Dobnak remained an option as well.
The Twins doubled down on that decision on Sunday, reportedly agreeing to a five-year extension with Dobnak. The move was surprising; Dobnak has just over a year of service time and three years of arbitration before he’s scheduled to hit free agency in 2026. Meanwhile, Odorizzi lingered on the free-agent market before signing a two-year, $20.25 million contract with the Houston Astros.
The decision to go with the pitcher who didn’t make the playoff roster last year over a veteran with All-Star experience is an interesting one. Earlier this month, I lamented the decision not to bring Odorizzi back. But when it comes to the specific way the Twins are constructed, investing in Dobnak is the smarter move.
A lot of his value comes with his age. Dobnak, 26, was a late bloomer and was never considered a top prospect until he tore through the Twins’ system two years ago. While that season ended with him having his side job ridiculed on national television, it was a successful rookie season for the right-hander.
All signs pointed to Dobnak continuing his success last year after he had a strong spring training. He started the season well despite the COIVD delay, going 5-1 with a 1.78 ERA in his first six starts.
Things went downhill after that. His .231 opponent BABIP was unsustainable, and he had an issue missing bats. He was due for regression. FanGraphs logged a 9.1% swinging-strike rate for Dobnak, while Statcast registered a whiff rate that put him in the 13th percentile of all MLB starters.
Hitters squared him up, and Dobnak went 1-3 with an 8.27 ERA in his final four starts before being optioned to minor league camp in St. Paul. But again, this may have been a case of his luck evening out. Opponents logged an astronomical .433 BABIP in those starts, which is also an unsustainable figure and due for regression. Dobnak also had several positive numbers last year, including a 58th-percentile exit velocity and 75th-percentile walk rate.
Those numbers are tough to find on the open market. When a pitcher’s luck evens out, that produces more wins and a lower ERA, which sends his value through the roof.
Ironically, Odorizzi is a perfect example of what can happen when a pitcher catches fire. He has been an erratic starter throughout his career but good enough to hold down a spot in the middle of the rotation. In his first season in Minnesota, he tied his career-high BB/9 ratio as a starter with 3.8 per nine innings and looked like a miss by the front office.
That changed when Odorizzi started working with Wes Johnson. The Twins’ pitching coach suggested he throw more fastballs and cutters, and it sparked the best stretch of Odorizzi’s career. In his first 13 starts of the 2019 season, Odorizzi went 9-2 with a 1.92 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .186/.258/.255 line.
That stretch not only cemented his spot on the roster but made him a lot of money in the process. Odorizzi regressed toward the end of the 2019 season, going 6-5 with a 4.77 ERA, and hitters slashed .269/.329/.454 against him. But he still started Game 3 of the ALDS against the New York Yankees and signed an $18.7 million qualifying offer the following offseason.
Even after an injury-plagued year where he put up some of the worst numbers in the majors, Odorizzi still commanded a salary north of $10 million for a role the Twins could fill for a fraction of the cost by signing Dobnak to an extension.
Locking in Dobnak long-term is predicated on a few assumptions, most notably that there is untapped potential within him. Although he could not miss bats in his first two seasons in the majors, the Twins seemed to be onto something after convincing him to change his slider’s delivery. The change has transformed Dobnak in spring training; he’s logged 18 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
There is a chance that Dobnak’s newfound strikeout ability is a temporary fix, but the Twins have hedged their bet. While he signed a five-year contract, it has three option years at the end of the deal, creating an NFL-like scenario where they can cut him loose without penalty after two years if he underperforms.
Odorizzi’s deal likely would not have included as many team options. Dobnak’s contract allows Minnesota to spend more of their budget to bolster their offense. All of this makes investing in Dobnak the safer option.