Almost as a compensation gift for not making the 2021 Opening Day starting rotation, the Minnesota Twins signed pitcher Randy Dobnak to a five-year contract extension, with three club option years. This puts the 26-year old pitcher — who has made all of 15 starts with the Major League club — under team control at least until he’s 30 and potentially until 2028, when he turns 33. The popular wisdom of the contract probably goes with the sentiment, “Get paid while you can.” Major League Baseball is a volatile industry and few players stay on the big league club year-after-year-after-year. However, I think there’s another dynamic at play — the “team friendly” contract — that’s overlooked in the current reporting of Dobnak’s contract, and I wanted to expand upon that in this article. By talking about long-term trends of team-friendly contracts, we might set the table for better, more equitable contracts for minor-leaguers and major leaguers as a whole. Ultimately, the baseball community can start looking at player agency in choosing to make less money up front as a stabilizing feature of their labor, or to “bet on themselves” and make more money in the future.
The Team Friendly Twins
The Minnesota Twins came into existence in the early 1960s when former owner Calvin Griffith moved the franchise from Washington D.C. to the suburbs of Minneapolis to cater to, to summarize his words, the majority white fan base in the Midwest. Calvin Griffith had inherited his father’s network of Cuban baseball labor, which provided the Twins with the largest pool of Latin American baseball workers seen in the Major Leagues leagues throughout the 1950s and 1960s. For more on this, you can see my chapter in Twin Cities Sports (University of Arkansas Press, 2020). But for now, it’s sufficient to point out that the Twins franchise became synonymous with “small market” and “team friendly contracts” by way of these exploitative contracts, which were generally long-term and under-paying. Hall of Famer Rod Carew was perhaps the best example of the opposition of this team-friendly trend. Griffith said in a 1978 public speech, “Carew was a damn fool to sign [his] contract. He only gets $170,000 and we all know damn well that he’s worth a lot more than that, but that’s what his agent asked for, so that’s what he gets.” When Carew got word of that statement, he nearly walked straight out of the team clubhouse and abandoned the Twins on the spot. However, he finished the 1978 season and publicly stated he would never play for the Twins again, instead finishing his career with the California Angels.
After Calvin Griffith divested from the team, the new owners — the Pohlad family — continued the “small market” face of the Twins. Despite winning two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991, by 2000, the Twins had been near the bottom of the AL Central for nearly a decade. With Minneapolitans uninterested in attending baseball games, the Twins’ attendance rates in 2000 were below that of the strike-shortened 1995 season. Major League Baseball threatened to eliminate the Twins — along with the Montreal Expos — if the market didn’t return. And thus, the “piranhas” of the 2000s were born, where the Twins returned to playoff contention behind a number of unassuming, low-priced players. Yet, those players who brought success to the team were almost never rewarded with a contract extension in Minnesota. Instead, players like Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar, and Eddie Rosario were either traded away for prospects or allowed to walk in free agency. Three of those players ended up on the Hall of Fame ballot.
The Dobnak Diaries
All of this brings us to the Twins player who is now under the longest guaranteed deal on the team, Randy Dobnak. Dobnak went undrafted out of college and was scouted via YouTube video, receiving a $500 signing bonus to join the Twins’ minor leagues. His 2018 year was rather “un-prospecty,” with 129 IP in A-ball and a paltry K-BB% of 10.9% and a WHIP of 1.26. Despite being relatively old for A-ball and being unable to strikeout batters, he raced through the minors in 2019 and got his first MLB cup of coffee. Although he showed flashes of strikeout power in 10 AA starts in 2019, he caught the eye of management when his last three MLB outings that year resulted in 16 IP, 13K to 3BB, and a sterling 1.10 ERA. However, an xFIP of 4.19 belied the success of those numbers: batters hit about 40% of his pitches hard, and his barrel rate was a mere 2.2%. It would just be a matter of time until batters put the barrel on the pitches they were hitting hard.
After injuries to Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill in 2020, Dobnak stepped into the rotation and started 10 games for the Twins, where he had a pedestrian 5.21 K/9 and an ERA and FIP around 4.00. His K-BB% sank to a pitiful 7%, and his WHIP of 1.35 demonstrated his more expected pitch-to-contact sensibility. However, he managed to limit damage by being an elite ground ball pitcher, with batters hitting the dirt 62% of the time. They continued to hit him hard — nearly a 40% rate — but those hits tended to go downwards rather than upwards. Dobnak finished the year with a 0.58 HR/9 rate, which demonstrated his ability to fit the mold of the prototypical Twins “pitch-to-contact” kind of player. Under this mantra familiar to Twins fans, the pitcher need not be flashy with the strikeouts, for the strong defense in the field would take care of the outs.
When John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper reported on Dobnak’s contract, he called it “strange,” and noted that Twins president of baseball operations, Derek Falvey, admitted to not knowing where Dobnak fit into the team. After all, Dobnak actually lost his starting rotation role; the Twins front-five in 2021 would be Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker. Even after Happ struggled with Covid and Shoemaker finished spring training with a 6.57 ERA, Dobnak will still start out of the bullpen as the primary long relief man.
So, what gives on making Dobnak the Twins player with the longest contract? John Shipley even notes that Jose Berrios — who is the same age as Dobnak and has nearly 10 times as many MLB innings as Dobnak — will be expected to go through arbitration this year before discussion of a contract extension in 2023.
One possible explanation is Dobnak is taking the cash while he can. Dobnak rose to prominence as the “Uber” pitcher — because he was undrafted and didn’t have a significant signing bonus to sustain him in the minor leagues, he worked as an Uber driver to make ends meet. When faced with the choice of working the gig economy or taking a multi-year contract that guarantees work for the next 4 years while adding up to $9 million, I think most sensible people take that contract. There’s money on the table, and if Dobnak gets injured or reveals that he is indeed the 7% K-BB / 5.00 xFIP guy, then he’s got his money and he can make what he wants of his life when the Twins release him after 2025.
On the other hand, the Twins end up with a spectacularly team-friendly deal if Dobnak “makes it” as a starter. This spring, he debuted a new slider, and went 15 IP with a 0.53 ERA, a 0.38 WHIP, and 19 strikeouts to 0 walks. Whew! But, small sample size is as small sample size does. We’re talking about a pitcher who topped out at 20% K-BB% in AA and has never really come close to repeating that. If Dobnak’s slider works out and changes his career, then the Twins end up controlling a useful pitcher until the end of the election cycle after the next election. There will be at least one if not two re-workings of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the Player’s Association within that time.
And that matters because there are only 10 MLB pitchers on a 5 year contract, and only 3 MLB pitchers who would be a “free agent” in 2026 (Dobnak does not become a free agent in 2026, but rather begins his series of team options). Of all the players involved, Dobnak would be the lowest paid of all of them. If Dobnak remains on the team in 5 years, his team option salary would be $6 million dollars. In today’s dollars, that would put him on par with Anthony DeSclafani, Sean Manaea, and Jose Berrios — the latter two who are still in arbitration. In other words, Dobnak gave up his arbitration rights — where he may have earned more money based on his performance. With ESPN reporting that the average MLB player made $4 million per year in 2020, Dobnak will be making less than that per year until 2025. When the team option kicks in, he would be making modestly more than the current average salary. However, with team revenue expected to pickup with the resumption of crowds in a semi-post-pandemic environment, Dobnak could find himself being underpaid for his future veteran status.
“Team friendly” is an interesting paradox. For some players, it makes sense to plant roots in one area and grow. If Randy Dobnak is the type of human that needs stability, familiar scenery, and a guaranteed income source — like all of us — then it makes sense for him to sign over control of his playing career to the Twins until 2028. He has a reasonable expectation of where he’ll be working — barring a trade — and he’ll have the opportunity to stay with the organization that drafted him. However, from another standpoint, the Twins are continuing the long-held tradition of their organization signing players for long-term contracts that are under-valued on the market. It’s a practice that’s etched in the club’s DNA: control the cheap players, and let the expensive players go. With Dobnak straddling the line of each world — a cheap, unproven player who would be underpriced if he develops into a successful pitcher — we are presented with the challenge of how to think about “team friendly” contracts.
So, what about you? Do you take the money on the table, knowing that you’ll have the guaranteed income and job? Or do you bet on yourself and know that you’ll have a successful career and make more money if you wait for free agency? Let me know what you think down in the comments!
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)