Twins prospect Balazovic fills out in lost year

RHP, 22, grows into 6-foot-5 frame; 'I just kept working out'

January 21st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- For the group of top prospects that was included in the Twins' player pool last season and made their way to the alternate training site in St. Paul, 2020 marked a lost season of competition but a prime opportunity to work closely on development with coordinators and coaches in a smaller setting.

Alone among the club's top six prospects, right-hander , ranked No. 4 in the organization by MLB Pipeline, wasn't invited to the player pool -- but he's hoping he'll be better off for it in what could be a pivotal 2021 season.

"I didn't really know what to do," Balazovic said last week to MLB Pipeline's Jonathan Mayo after the Rookie Program. "I just kept working out and kept with my programs, and it was tough mentally for the most part. That was probably the hardest thing I had to go through, was just trying to push yourself and getting motivated and basically just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

While Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Jhoan Duran and Ryan Jeffers went north for Summer Camp and the abbreviated regular season in the Twin Cities, Balazovic stayed at the Twins' Minor League complex in Fort Myers, Fla., for several months, throwing regular bullpen sessions and working on his body while he waited for his situation to change -- but that obviously wasn't where he wanted to be at the time.

That wasn't necessarily an arbitrary demarcation, as the other five prospects all spent time in Double-A during the 2019 season, while Balazovic pitched mostly at Class A Advanced Fort Myers before getting promoted for a Double-A playoff start (he allowed two runs in 4 2/3 innings).

Balazovic's situation was likely made tougher by the fact that president of baseball operations Derek Falvey declared during the offseason that he expected both Balazovic and Duran -- the top two pitching prospects in the organization -- to make their MLB debuts during the 2020 campaign.

The 22-year-old Balazovic channeled that disappointment into continued work on building up his strength, and despite having a less developed body when he entered the system, he's grown into a 6-foot-5 frame by bulking up to 217 pounds, with his fastball consistently sitting in the mid-90s to complement his breaking ball and changeup. Balazovic did eventually make his way to St. Paul in September, when the Twins added him to the player pool ahead of his offseason instructional league activity.

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"He's always a guy who had room to fill out physically, and he's working hard on that front and did throughout the season," farm director Alex Hassan said. "So we couldn't been more pleased with the work that he put in throughout a tough year. And I think, just given his pitches and his performance in the past, he's certainly a guy with a bright future and a guy [who] hopefully will be ready to contribute the Major League level at some point in the not-too-distant future as well."

That opportunity shouldn't be all too far away. The Twins came to an agreement with veteran left-hander J.A. Happ to address their rotation depth on Wednesday, but there's at least one rotation spot still up in the air, and as the Twins' injury struggles in 2020 made evident, there's almost always room for starting pitchers to climb the ladder during the season. With that in mind, Balazovic hopes to take some positives away from the roadblock of last year.

"Mentally, it was really hard, but we got over that, and I feel like it's actually made me stronger and more ready for the 2021 season," Balazovic said.

At least in 2021, he won't need to worry about being left behind after he was added to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. That means he'll be in spring camp with the big leaguers from the start, and he won't need to clear any extra roster hurdles when it comes to promotions.

That light at the end of the tunnel looks more within reach now than ever before.

"It still hasn't really sunk in yet," Balazovic said. "I'm at home. I'm by myself over here. But it's definitely going to be really eye-opening once I go back over to Fort Myers and things start to pick up. It's definitely one of the goals I wanted to reach. Now, the hard work is really just starting."