For the Twins, the acquisition of Jordan Balazovic in the fifth round of the 2016 Draft was a perfect storm of timing, trust and circumstance.
When he was selected, the rising star -- Minnesota’s No. 4 prospect and No. 86 on the Top 100 -- was 17 years old, described as long and lean at 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, throwing in the upper 80s. Those qualifiers aren’t necessarily typical of a high-round pick, particularly one from the hockey hotbed of Canada, where innings aren’t easy to come by. But all involved admit there was something there.
There’s little consensus when it comes to where credit rightfully belongs, but there is one common understanding: the Twins had the perfect puzzle pieces in place to select the right-hander. Now 21, 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Balazovic has a 2019 season on his resume that ended with a playoff appearance for Double-A Pensacola after a year in which he posted a 2.69 ERA across two levels and 93 2/3 innings with 129 strikeouts, an opponents’ average of .193 and a 0.98 WHIP, but not even the men who pushed for his selection completely understood what he had in the tank.
“The least of my concerns was velocity,” Walt Burrows, a Twins amateur scout, said. “I knew it would come, though I thought it would be 91 to 93 with great feel, and it’s 94 to 97 with great feel now. I was definitely wrong there. I don’t know what Billy thought, but I didn’t see the 97 miles an hour with no effort coming.”
Burrows is referring to Billy Corrigan, then the East Coast supervisor and now a national crosschecker in his 15th year with Minnesota, who admittedly thought the same. But Corrigan was all in on Balazovic from the first time he saw him throw for two reasons: his trust in Burrows and his on-the-job training with the Twins.
“The guy who hired me, Tim O’Neil, is a teacher at heart, and he took the time and the consideration to groom me and challenge me and try to get me to think different ways and understand how hard you have to work,” Corrigan said.
O’Neil’s dedication played a role in the selection of Balazovic but made its biggest impact directly before the Draft, so we’ll revisit that later.
Corrigan’s first look at Balazovic came in his first game with Burrows. Burrows had 30 years as an evaluator under his belt, but he was in his first year with a team after having spent the entirety of his career with Major League Baseball’s Scouting Bureau, and he'd never had to fight for a player before.
“I mentioned Jordan was the player I really liked, but there was a semi-bias against Canadians in the industry and they needed to show real performance,” Burrows said. “This wasn’t the Twins; it was my own thought process. I had a preconceived notion that unless Billy saw 94 miles an hour it was going to be a tough sell.”
Minnesota hadn’t signed a Canadian amateur since 2011, when Corrigan nabbed Stephen Wickens in the 33rd round out of Florida Gulf Coast University. While Corrigan is proud of the six-year Minor League career Wickens compiled, the infielder played his last professional game less than a week before Balazovic officially signed, turning the Canadian tide.
“Walt’s the greatest Canadian scout that I know, and I pay attention to a good scout,” Corrigan said. “I pay attention to what I see with my eyes, and you could see the projectability, the feel for the baseball. He could throw strikes, he had starter traits and Walt took the initiative to start that process by telling me, ‘This is the player we need to focus on.’”
With Corrigan on board and the Draft approaching, the struggle became a matter of getting more people in the organization to see Balazovic on the mound.
“Tim O’Neil was the national crosschecker and he wanted to come to Canada to see Jordan throw because he hadn’t seen him in Florida,” Burrows said. “He had a game scheduled at the Field of Dreams in Dorchester, Ont., against the Great Lake Canadians, and I got a call about three o’clock in the morning from Tim that there was a big storm coming, the radar was awful, and should he travel that day or wait? Would they play?”
Burrows encouraged O’Neil to come the following day, and he arrived amid a blistery cold, mid-May snowfall wearing only a windbreaker. The last course of action for the Twins in solidifying their desire to pick Balazovic came by way of O’Neil stepping in and out of a portable toilet to catch some final glimpses of him as an amateur.
“He went into the porta-potty behind home plate between innings for warmth, and peeked out when Jordan was going to come back out to pitch,” Burrows said. “Jordan pitched really well … and Tim O’Neil gets marks for braving the snow to see Jordan. That was the last real look we had at him leading into the Draft, that game in the snow.”
Since the Draft, Balazovic has taken the reins on his career, but there’s no shortage of pride in the process that began his path with the Twins.
“It started with a talented, experienced area scout who identified a player and pushed him, and I at least had the intelligence to keep my ears open and pay attention to what I’m seeing with my eyes and trusting that Walt knows what he’s doing,” Corrigan said. “He’s got a chance to potentially pitch in the Major Leagues this year; if not this year, then next year. And as a fifth-round high school player, that’s something that you take a lot of pride in.”