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Uber deal: Twins lock up pitcher Dobnak for long term

MINNEAPOLIS — Randy Dobnak’s road to the major leagues was so far off the traditional path he even chauffeured some ride-share customers along the way.

The Minnesota Twins delivered the overachieving right-hander another big-time moment on Monday, in the form of a $9.25 million, five-year contract that includes three club options and could be worth $29.75 million over eight seasons.

“I always believed in myself, even since I was a little kid. You have career days and stuff when you’re in elementary school and whatnot, and I was always like, ‘I want to be a baseball player,’” said Dobnak, whose place as the swingman of the 13-pitcher staff was secured last week.

He’ll be the team’s primary long reliever for now, essentially the sixth starter behind José Berríos, Kenta Maeda, Matt Shoemaker, Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ. This is a lot of money to guarantee a pitcher with 75 career major league innings, but the Twins saw enough improvement in his fastball and his slider this spring to make a bet on the 26-year-old Dobnak being a long-term fixture in the rotation. Shoemaker, Pineda and Happ will all can become free agents after the season.

“We think he can be a really important part of our team. We wouldn’t be making this decision and this commitment if we didn’t feel that way,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said.

Dobnak went 6-4 with a 4.05 ERA in 10 starts in 2020, before hitting a slump and being sent to the team’s alternate training site. He led all major league pitchers with a minimum of 45 innings last year in ground ball percentage (62.1), leaning often on his trusty sinker.

The bespectacled, mustachioed 26-year-old became a cult hero after his major league debut in 2019, when he wound up starting a postseason game at Yankee Stadium.

Undrafted out of an NCAA Division II program, Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, Dobnak was pitching in obscurity in independent ball in Michigan — for the Utica Unicorns of the United States Professional Baseball League — when Twins discovered him. Scout Billy Milos, the one who first heard of Dobnak, started the process by poring over YouTube clips.

“I had no idea they were even looking at me. He called me on some random morning and was like ‘Hey, long story short, do you want to sign with the Twins?’ Dobnak said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, we can do something like that.’”

To make ends meet along his way up the ladder, Dobnak was an Uber driver during his spare time, humorously touting on his Twitter bio an average 4.99-star rating. Having the blessing of his parents and his now-wife, Aerial, sure made it easier to stick with it. She’s a middle school guidance counselor where they live in West Virginia, a job she’ll no longer need.

“She always told me that if she ever had the opportunity she would volunteer her time for free,” Dobnak said. “So she’s a special girl.”

Dobnak had earlier agreed to a one-year contract paying $583,500 while in the major leagues and $246,163 while in the minors. His new superseding contract calls for salaries of $700,000 this season and $800,000 in 2022. He will get $1.5 million in 2023, $2.25 million in 2024 and $3 million in 2025, the three years when he would have been eligible for salary arbitration.

The Twins have a $6 million option with a $1 million buyout for 2026, the first season he would have been eligible for free agency. The Twins have a $7 million option for 2027 with a $100,000 buyout and an $8.5 million option for 2028 with a $100,000 buyout.

There are all kinds of incentives in the deal, too.

His 2026 option would escalate by $200,000 apiece for 130, 150 and 170 innings each time those marks are reached from 2023-25. It also would increase by $2 million for each Cy Young Award in those years, $1 million for each second-place finish, $500,000 for each third place and $250,000 for any time finishing fourth through sixth. It would increase by $100,000 per All-Star selection.

The 2027 option would increase by the same amounts for each accomplishment from 2024-26 and the 2028 option by the same amounts for each achievement from 2025-27.

Dobnak also would earn award bonuses of $25,000 each time he makes the All-Star team and wins a Gold Glove, $50,000 for being named League Championship Series MVP and $100,000 for World Series MVP. He would get $100,000 for winning a Cy Young, $75,000 for finishing second, $50,000 for third and $25,000 for fourth through sixth.

ROOKER LEFT OUT

The Twins also answered the remaining questions about the opening day roster on Monday. Corner outfielder Brent Rooker was sent to the alternate training site, non-roster relief pitchers Derek Law and Brandon Waddell were reassigned to minor league camp, and reliever Edwar Colina was placed on the 10-day injured list with right elbow inflammation.

That solidified a spot for left-hander Caleb Thielbar, joining Dobnak, Cody Stashak, Jorge Alcala, Hansel Robles, Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers and Alex Colomé in the bullpen.

The final bench role went to fan favorite catcher Willians Astudillo, who will also be a regular backup at first base and third base. In a pinch, he can take second base or the outfield corners. Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers will share the bulk of the time behind the plate.

With Josh Donaldson, Andrelton Simmons, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sanó set around the diamond, Luis Arraez will be the first lineup fill-in any time any of them need a break. With Rooker and Alex Kirilloff on the minor league side, Jake Cave and Kyle Garlick will for now platoon in left field next to regulars Byron Buxton and Max Kepler. Nelson Cruz is the full-time designated hitter.

Rooker, Waddell, right-handed pitcher Luke Farrell, infielder JT Riddle and catcher Tomás Telis were flagged for the five-player taxi squad.

The biggest surprise was Rooker, the 35th overall pick in the 2017 amateur draft who played in seven games in 2020 before breaking his forearm being hit by a pitch.

“I don’t think that he’s very far away from helping us. It takes one move, one particular instant, one thing to happen, for him to be here and be contributing in a really big way,” manager Rocco Baldelli said, adding: “We’re going to look to Rook, and when we do call his name, he’ll be ready to go and he’ll be ready to produce.”