If baseball’s languorous summer marathon is transformed by coronavirus into a tightly wound drag race to the postseason, Jake Odorizzi wants to be revved up as he reaches the starting line. His future, and his team’s, might depend on it.
Odorizzi accepted the Twins’ qualifying offer of $17.8 million in November and put off free agency by a year, gambling that he could replicate his All-Star 2019 season, help a division winner defend its title and advance further in the playoffs, then secure a lavish long-term contract from the highest bidder.
A season disrupted or even canceled by a pandemic was never part of his calculations.
“It’s not, but you can’t worry about that type of thing while this is going on. … There are a lot of people being hurt by this situation, and we don’t even know what this will do to the economy — the U.S. economy or the baseball economy,” Odorizzi said. “All you can do is sit back and take things as they come.”
Only, he’s not following his own advice — because he’s hardly “sitting back.” With the help of Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson, Odorizzi meticulously plotted and executed his spring training ramp-up, a training timetable that almost certainly would have delivered him the honor of being on the mound Thursday in Target Field, starting the Twins home opener.
Instead, Odorizzi will spend the afternoon in a closed private gym in Tampa, Fla., doing a social-distance workout with teammate Tyler Clippard and a personal trainer. The two Twins righthanders have an appointment to play catch nearly every day, Odorizzi says, part of his new program to maintain the arm strength he had built up in February and early March.
“I’m doing some long toss just about every day, and I’m doing a bullpen [workout] regularly. And once a week, I’m going to pitch a quote-unquote game, five innings of 15 pitches or so each, using all my pitches, with a break in between,” Odorizzi said. “I was already up to 70 pitches, and I want to hover around that mark, so whenever we get an estimate of when we’re going back to work, I’ll probably only need two starts to get ready. A five-inning outing, a six-inning outing, then I’m ready to go.”
He also hopes to visit the Florida Baseball Ranch near Orlando, if it’s safe and possible — there’s no stay-at-home order in place there — to throw from a force-plate mound and get some extra input on his mechanics.
“I’m not really taxing my arm and my body as much as the season would. I’m not overdoing it,” Odorizzi said. “But I want to stay in that good spring shape so I can start strong again.”
Like he did last year, he means. Odorizzi enjoyed a 10-game stretch from mid-April to mid-June in which he went 9-0 with a 1.07 ERA, holding hitters to a .199 average and .252 on-base percentage and striking out 63 batters in 59 innings while walking only 13. That stretch eventually helped get him selected to his first American League All-Star team.
Numbers like those would stand out even more in a season reduced to 100 games or fewer.
“It’s going to turn everything into a sprint. That could level the playing field, team-wise — the more games we play, the more it shifts back in our favor [for] having a well-shaped team,” he said.
And for him personally?
“If we play half a season, that’s 15 starts. If they’re really great 15 starts, it’s kind of like going into the All-Star break with a good first half,” said Odorizzi, who celebrated his 30th birthday Friday, when he would have been scheduled to start the season’s second game at Oakland. “Me being where I’m at in my career, if I can replicate the year I had before, I don’t think it changes too much. And it might even be an advantage [for free agency] — fewer innings on your arm.”
Then again, maybe there won’t be baseball at all. Under last week’s agreement between MLB and its players, Odorizzi would receive only a small percentage of this year’s career-best contract, which is nearly twice as big as any of his previous deals, and he would become a free agent once again. There wouldn’t be another qualifying offer to accept — and who knows what the open market, in an industry that will be dealing with a year’s lost revenue and perhaps drastic cuts in corporate partnerships, will look like then?
Odorizzi understood when he delayed free agency that he was betting on himself. But he might no longer be the deciding factor in that wager.
“It’s out of my control, so I don’t spend much time on that one,” he said. “I know not playing, it’s definitely a possibility. I mean, you can’t risk getting people sick. It’s going be determined by what’s going on in the world, and we’re all aware of that. Everybody I know wants to play, and I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to at some point this year.”