FORT MYERS, FLA. – There were 10 pitchers among the 20 players announced Monday as invitees to Twins spring training. They can be added to the 21 pitchers on the 40-player major league roster.
That mass of pitchers does not include Jordan Balazovic, a 21-year-old Canadian and voted (by me) as “most likely to remain a starter” among the Twins’ top pitching prospects.
A year ago, Brusdar Graterol was supposed to be the young starter flamethrowing toward the Twins rotation. Then, he had shoulder soreness at Class AA Pensacola, pitched only 61 innings in the minors, and 10⅔ more in 11 appearances with the Twins, including one in the playoffs.
Now, he has been advertised as a candidate for the Twins bullpen in 2020. If that happens, he always can resume his starting career in the future. And if you believe that, the Timberwolves have some playoff tickets to sell you.
Two years ago, Fernando Romero was the young starter on the rise, and then he had a few bad starts for the Twins. Now, he’s a reliever and a long shot to make the club.
My theory: Once you take your lively arm to the bullpen with this brain trust, you’re there for your Twins eternity.
“I love being a starter,” Balazovic said. “I’m not one of those guys who is going to blow hitters away by throwing 100. I mix pitches. Some nights, it’s a lot of fastballs. Other nights, more breaking pitches. Whatever’s working.”
Balazovic had two relief appearances last season: one for Class A Fort Myers and one in the Futures Game at the 2019 All-Star Game. He also made a start for Canada’s silver medalists in the Pan-Am Games in Lima, Peru, in late summer.
“It was against Cuba,” Balazovic said. “That wasn’t my best effort.”
One of his Canadian teammates was Rene Tosoni, a Twins outfielder way back in 2011. “What a good dude,” said Balazovic, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. “He shows such a drive to play the game.”
Balazovic will not be with Canada when it tries to qualify for the Olympics in an eight-team tournament at the end of March in Arizona. The Twins want him cranking up to start the season at Class AA Pensacola.
There are two young starters — Balazovic and Jhoan Duran — that figure to be back-of-mind if the Twins rotation remains uncertain in August. Of course, Duran throws near 100, so he could be a candidate for the bullpen at any moment.
Balazovic definitely has a starter look to him. He stands 6-5, and with a superb delivery that’s continuously repeated. As Ron Gardenhire would say, “the ball really comes out of his hand.”
He wasn’t a strikeout pitcher when the Twins gave him $515,000 to sign as a fifth-round draft choice in 2016.
“I’ve grown into my body,” Balazovic said. “I’ve gotten stronger. And that has added a few ticks to my velocity.”
Those few ticks helped him to 129 strikeouts in 93⅔ innings in two Class A stops in 2019. This was coming off a 2018 when the strikeouts started to appear, but also a season in which he was restricted to 12 appearances and 61⅔ innings.
“There was some discomfort in the elbow,” Balazovic said. “The ligament’s fine; it was a nerve, I guess. Rehab worked.”
The main reason for Balazovic’s absence from big-league camp would be his general lack of competitive pitching: only 227⅔ innings in four pro seasons.
LaTroy Hawkins, the 20-season big leaguer, has dealt with Balazovic as a Twins instructor. They got off to a bad start when Balazovic missed an 8 a.m. meeting with LaTroy.
“The next day, I made an 11 a.m. appointment with him and then I didn’t show up,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been good since then. The young man really has progressed as a pitcher.
“I can relate to him. He spent his first two years in the [rookie-level Gulf Coast League]. I spent my first two years in the GCL. That’s a delay right at the start of your career. You have to learn from that, get better, get serious.
“And he’s done that.”
Balazovic has stayed in Florida to work out at the Twins’ complex the past two winters. He has been part of a camp the past two weeks, where young pitchers work on a specific pitch.
“For me, it’s the changeup, for the second straight year,” he said. “I’m getting the feel. It’s going to be a good pitch for me.”
Fastball. Curveball. Changeup. All jumping out of a 6-5 frame and easy delivery.
Jordan Balazovic has starter written all over him so clearly, the Twins might actually keep him there.
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