WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. – Brian Dozier may have been exiled from the only team he’s ever known last July, but he’s already planning a big Minnesota comeback. Well, for three days, anyway.
The Nationals visit Target Field in September, and “I already know the restaurants I’m going to eat at, and I know the beer I’m going to drink,” Dozier said Saturday as he greeted former Twins teammates behind the batting cage at Fitteam Ballpark. “I’ll miss that city.”
Never wanted to leave, actually. With free agency looming, Dozier had his agent approach the Twins last spring about negotiating another long-term deal, picking up where the four-year, $20 million deal he signed in March 2015 ended.
“They said no. Multiple times,” Dozier said, shrugging. “I always saw myself being there forever, but I was never in their plans, which is too bad. They tell you no a few times, you get the message.”
Dozier, who led the Twins in home runs for five consecutive seasons and climbed to ninth on their all-time homer list, knew that meant he would likely be traded if the Twins weren’t in a playoff race. When his closest friend on the team, Eduardo Escobar, was dealt July 27, Dozier realized his time with the Twins — which began when they drafted him in the eighth round in 2009 out of Southern Miss — was coming to a close.
“It was difficult. The week leading up to [the trade deadline] was tough,” Dozier said. “I knew it was coming, but when it really happens, that’s when you start playing stuff back in your mind, all the memories you have and the friends you made. It’s funny how suddenly it comes to a halt, but you pick up and move on.”
He moved on to the Dodgers, where he homered in his first two games in Los Angeles. He also reached the postseason for the second time — the Twins’ appearance in the 2017 wild-card game against the Yankees was the first — and appeared in the World Series.
All good experiences, despite losing the championship to the Red Sox, but it wasn’t as much fun as it should have been. The reason: Dozier wasn’t healthy. Hadn’t been for months, in fact.
During a series at Yankee Stadium in late April, Dozier says, he badly bruised his left knee. “I made my little sliding play up the middle” to field a ground ball and pivot to make the throw, he said. “I made that play three days in a row, and I developed a bone bruise on my knee. And it progressively got worse.”
His instinct told him to play through it, and Dozier kept quiet about the severity of the injury, though it felt like bone-on-bone irritation to him. He wishes now that he had spoken up.
“The problem was, I started developing some bad habits in my swing. I was landing too soft on my front foot,” so as not to aggravate the injury, he said. “I wasn’t really creating torque. It kind of spiraled out of control.”
It ruined Dozier’s season, at the worst time possible. He batted only .227 with the Twins with just 16 home runs, and by the time he arrived in Los Angeles, he wasn’t the same player. He batted .182 with the Dodgers, and went 2-for-16 as a part-time player in the postseason, including an 0-for-5 World Series. His biggest contribution, he said, wasn’t even on the field; it was the scouting reports about Red Sox starters Chris Sale and David Price that he shared with his teammates.
Not the résumé you want to take into free agency.
“The free-agent process, it was good. Well, good enough,” he said. “I knew what to expect off a down year. I had a few multi-year offers, but we felt like it makes more sense to take a one-year deal and get back on track.”
When the Nationals called with a $9 million offer, he reached out to former teammates Josh Willingham and Kurt Suzuki to ask about their experiences in Washington. Convinced it’s a good situation, he signed up.
“I didn’t take the most dollars. I came to a place where everything is first class, and we’ve got a good chance to win, so I’m pretty happy with it,” Dozier said. “It’s not what I ever expected, but good with it. I’m still smiling.”