Do-it-all Dobnak an asset on Twins' staff

March 5th, 2021

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- spent this offseason making advancements all around his life.

For one, he's no longer living with his in-laws, which is always a meaningful foray into adulthood. He and his wife, Aerial, are also home-cooking a lot more meals -- aided by the continued steady stream of his father-in-law's zucchini and peppers that helped Dobnak drop some weight last winter.

As first-time homeowners, they've recently repainted their bedroom and hired others to slap a fresh coat on their cabinets and living room.

So what's it going to take for him to make a similar advancement in his baseball career?

Dobnak made enough of an impression during his meteoric rise in 2019 that the Twins handed him the Game 2 start in the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. Last offseason, Minnesota brought in an all-veteran starting rotation, leaving no room for Dobnak, who ended up pitching nearly the entire season as a starter anyway due to a rash of injuries.

Coming off a 4.05 ERA in 2020, Dobnak could have been in line to fill the Twins' fifth rotation spot behind Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ -- until the club signed Matt Shoemaker in the waning days of the offseason, once again pushing Dobnak's role into limbo.

What more does he need to do to earn a full-time gig in this league?

"I don't know, be more consistent, I guess?" he said. "Maybe strike some more guys out? We'll see."

All this uncertainty as to whether Dobnak will be starting or pitching in long relief, whether he'll break camp with the big club or at the alternate training site -- it might bother others to a greater extent after all this time, but Dobnak's just not that kind of guy, even as he openly professes that he still has no idea what the plan for him is.

For that matter, the Twins don't know, either.

"Dobber has already established that he can help us at the Major League level in a big way," manager Rocco Baldelli said earlier this camp. "He’s not here right now to outpitch anyone next to him to try to earn a particular spot. We want him to get ready for the season. We want him to prepare in the best possible way he can to be stretched out and give us innings. Exactly how those innings are going to show up, I can’t tell you right now."

In fact, Dobnak's easygoing personality almost makes him the easiest candidate for one of these flexible roles. Baldelli continually notes how hands-off the 26-year-old right-hander is and how agreeable he tends to be in whatever role is asked of him. Starting? Great. Pitching out of the bullpen in the fourth? Fine.

And even when the Twins bring in someone to fill an opening that might have belonged to him, Dobnak's fine with that, too.

"I think it's a good thing for the [organization], having more options," Dobnak said. "And obviously, with the 162-game season, guys are going to get banged up, so having guys like me, Smeltz, Thorpe, all those guys, stretched out -- even if it's long relief or getting stretched out in Triple-A -- just having us as options to come up and fill a spot is always nice."

Dobnak is hoping that added consistency can come from some work on his slider, to which he's looking to add more horizontal break to his glove side in order to better differentiate the movement between that pitch and his sinker and changeup, which break to his arm side. He's been tweaking the grip of his slider because his hand doesn't naturally supinate very well, which lends to spin that tends to give the pitch more drop than horizontal movement.

Dobnak is also hoping that the addition of Andrelton Simmons on the left side of the infield should help, considering he relies heavily on his sinker and induced a 62.1 percent ground-ball rate last year. Dobnak's father, Rick, has been pelting him with Simmons' defensive highlights since the Twins signed the shortstop on Jan. 31.

In any case, Dobnak is ready for whatever surprises the Twins might throw at him. It turns out he sometimes throws surprises back at them, too, as his skipper didn't even know that Dobnak planned to incorporate a new wrinkle into his slider mechanics before he went out and threw 2 1/3 scoreless frames against the Braves on Friday.

"I didn’t even know that," Baldelli said. "That’s pretty solid. The slider did look good today. I’m not surprised, though, that he’s so willing to take something into the game and then go out there and execute with it. That’s just something that he can do."

That kind of spontaneity has defined Dobnak's relationship with the Twins in both directions. (Who can forget when he needed to ask Baldelli for permission to leave the team for his wedding on a few weeks' notice?)

There's no end to that for now -- but it'll keep the opportunities flowing.

"His ability to walk in and just go out there and focus on pitching is something that’s always going to put him in a spot to succeed," Baldelli said. "We’re not going to hesitate to ask him to do everything."