FORT MYERS, Fla. — For the Tampa Bay Rays, February 15 was the date on which pitchers and catchers were to report to spring training. Starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi was there on time, as always. But just two days later, the 27-year-old was dealt to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios.
The right-hander packed his bags and headed an hour north from Port Charlotte, Florida, to the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers. Just another day for the Rays.
Tampa Bay has gone into rebuild mode, doing its best to find trades for Odorizzi and former third baseman Evan Longoria. It has made no attempt yet to re-sign free agents Alex Cobb and Logan Morrison, both key performhers in 2017. The Rays even designated for assignment 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson to make room on the roster for newly-acquired first baseman C.J. Cron.
For his part, Odorizzi was with the organization for five seasons. It’s safe to say that he understands the process of tearing down and starting from scratch. But right now, he’s just happy to have found a place with a team that has set its eyes on contention.
“It’s nice to be on a contending team that’s putting the effort in to add and win,” Odorizzi said in an exclusive interview with FanRag Sports. “Making the playoffs last year, getting to the wild card game. There’s a lot of fuel this year to get back, win the division, and get out of that one-game playoff. I like the atmosphere here, and everybody has really bought into improving what they had last year. And they were already really good.”
Minnesota pulled away from the Rays and others late in September to claim the second American League wild card spot with an 85-77 record. The Twins lost to the New York Yankees in the wild card game, but they are clearly on the rise. Coming into spring training, the one obvious area where the Twins were lacking was starting pitching. That was made even worse when it was learned that Ervin Santana would miss 10-12 weeks after having surgery on one of his fingers.
The trade for Odorizzi was good timing on their part. Still, dealing with an offseason full of rumors and then moving to a new team after having already reported to training camp is never easy.
“(The hardest part is) just getting to know everybody on a personal level,” he said. “It’s just trying to get on the personal level and really starting to establish that friendship and teammate aspect of it. Baseball is baseball, it all translates. But getting to know your teammates is a big thing, you’ve gotta have that camaraderie. That’s the toughest thing about coming to a new spot.”
In some situations, that can be tough. But if there’s any silver lining with the Rays’ rough offseason in Odorizzi’s mind, it’s that none of this came as a surprise. He was prepared to leave at any time.
“I had a little intel on it, but it wasn’t like it was a for-sure thing either way. I assumed that it was, from the context of ownership’s direction,” said Odorizzi. “But once spring training rolled around, it was like ‘Is this going to happen? When is it going to happen?’ It could be any day, and that was the worst part. Wondering each day if it was going to be my last day. I’m glad that I was able to get out early enough and get here and experience the full spring training.”
Considering that this is the same Rays team that was just 2.5 games back of the Twins in the wild card race on Sept. 5 last year, the changes have been very upsetting to many of the players involved. Few have been too shy to express their frustration. Longoria, now with the San Francisco Giants, didn’t hold back when commenting on the curious DFA of Dickerson.
“I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays’ fan base… I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFA’d. Corey was our best player last year.”
Odorizzi echoes the belief that this process can be particularly harmful to the fan base, even if he understands the business aspect and holds no ill will toward Tampa Bay for trading him to Minnesota.
“I think we can all see what’s going on there, and it’s not enjoyable,” he said. “People get attached to the players, and they see the turnover and then they’re gone. There’s a lot of anger toward that, because their favorite players are gone. But hopefully for everybody they can make the most of it, however it turns out. I hope that happens.”
Odorizzi isn’t in Fort Myers to look backwards, however. The focus now is on the Twins, and for him it’s all about staying healthy. He dealt with several nagging injuries throughout the season in 2017, and that came to an apex in July. Odorizzi took a 16-day break between starts in July and August to rest his ailing back, but then suffered a foot injury in his return on August 9.
He chose to push through, and the end result was two ugly months. Odorizzi posted a 6.33 ERA with 27 walks, 33 strikeouts, and 11 home runs allowed in nine starts over that period.
But once he was fully healthy, everything was back to normal. In five September starts, Odorizzi threw 26 1/3 innings with 30 strikeouts, nine walks, three home runs allowed, and a 1.03 ERA. It was a lesson learned the hard way.
“I battled through it the entire season, up until I took the time off. Once I did, things were completely different,” he said. “Looking back on it, if I had taken (time off) early in the season, who knows what it would’ve been like? The way I look at it is, it’s just one not-so-good year. I can get back to my normal routine this year, and my normal results, and no one’s the wiser. I’m ready to go and ready to get back to being healthy, and that’s where I am right now.”
As for staying healthy, Odorizzi’s plan in the offseason was to slightly change his workout routine. That meant adding some pilates to increase core strength and flexibility.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff about how it’s beneficial for baseball players, but it’s just a good, functional exercise,” said Odorizzi. “You do an hour of that and it kicks your butt real good. It gets you out of the monotony of going to the same gym every day, doing the same routine. It energizes you, doing something different.”
Whether the Twins can actually battle the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central remains to be seen. Even with its surprising season, Minnesota still finished 17 games out of first place last year. More progress needs to be made, but Odorizzi is ready to tackle that head on and he’s extremely grateful to be in a place where such a challenge exists.