When Twins fans last saw Jake Odorizzi, he was the most motivated pitcher in baseball, an All-Star righthander who deferred his first multiyear contract for an extra 12 months in hopes of compounding its value. Who gambled, say, a guaranteed $40 million payoff in order to entice perhaps one twice as big, on the strength of a bravura 2020 encore.
Then the world changed.
But Odorizzi says his outlook hasn’t.
“I’m happy with everything I did this last offseason, the decisions I made,” said Odorizzi, who posted a career-best 3.51 ERA and 15-7 record in 2019 as he headed into free agency. “I wouldn’t change them today, as I wouldn’t change them back then.”
What really hasn’t changed, Odorizzi said, is his own preparation for this pivotal season. When spring training closed March 12, he figured he was only one or two starts away from regular-season form, his mechanics developed and perfected amid near secrecy on the backfields of the Twins’ campus.
With no idea how long the interruption would last, Odorizzi simply moved that project north to his Tampa home, and east to the Florida Baseball Ranch in Lakeland, determined to take no backward steps in his training. He played catch six days a week with Twins teammate Tyler Clippard to keep his arm strong. He threw off a mound to a catcher every Monday to tweak his control. And every Thursday, he drove to Lakeland to simulate, as best he could, trying to retire Royals and Tigers and Yankees, all while having FBR’s technology track every twitch and pitch.
“I did 60-pitch ‘games’ once a week. I had TrackMan data and all the stuff I use during the offseason,” Odorizzi said. “Only Clip, myself and a trainer, so we didn’t have to worry about being overcrowded. Everything was set up good for keeping a distance from everybody else, but still being able to do my normal stuff.”
The result? Odorizzi made a distinctly positive impression on the first batter he faced during his first Target Field workout on Saturday.
“He looked really good, especially the breaking pitch,” second baseman Luis Arraez said. “The fastball is kind of straight, up. He’s really good.”
Now Odorizzi’s task is to make that the recurring theme of his upcoming nine-week audition for free agent suitors, including the Twins. Millions are riding on it.
That wager on himself looked a lot more straightforward during the winter, when Odorizzi found some interest in offering him a long-term contract, but discovered that the draft pick that would have to be forfeited to sign him, plus the presence of better known stars such as Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner on the market, limited the amount that teams were willing to invest.
Wait a year, eliminate the draft-pick penalty, and enter a far less crowded free-agent field, perhaps off another All-Star caliber season? Odorizzi accepted less for 2020 — the Twins’ one-year $17.8 million qualifying offer — in hopes of getting more in 2021.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, damaging his calculated risk in multiple ways. Odorizzi refuses to complain about being swept up in a calamity he had no hand in creating, and he’s mindful that his financial worries are nothing at all compared with those of most people who root for him. But the possibility exists that, merely on the strength of unfortunate timing, the virus could cost him tens of millions of dollars over his career, far more than most MLB players.
That $17.8 million salary, for instance, nearly twice as big as any of his career — “not a bad worst-case scenario,” Odorizzi described it earlier this year — is now $6.59 million after being prorated for a 60-game season.
The shortened season gives Odorizzi, who turned 30 in March, fewer chances to exhibit his data-driven improvements for potential suitors. And once it became clear that this season will largely take place without fans buying tickets, MLB owners demonstrated how spending-averse they are in this economic climate by dragging out negotiations with the players’ union for weeks over pandemic wages.
Does anyone believe that the upcoming free-agent market, which bestowed a dozen contracts worth more than $50 million last winter, will be anywhere near as robust in 2020 after a summer of red ink, especially if the virus appears to be imperiling the 2021 season as well?
Odorizzi is staying positive, banking that he will receive more lucrative offers this year than last. Talent is talent, and teams will still pay for it, he insisted.
“Teams still may spend, and there’s going to be teams that are in OK [financial] position,” Odorizzi said. “Ultimately, if a team wants to win, my services are available, so it boils down to wanting to win. If you want to win, you’re still going to spend.”