The last time the Minnesota Twins signed a 6-foot-4 left-handed hitting slugger out of Western Canada it worked out pretty well.
You may have heard of Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.).
The Twins selected him in the third round of the 1999 MLB draft and he became a four-time All-Star, the 2006 American League MVP and a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
Nobody is expecting Nolan Machibroda to be Justin Morneau, but, like Morneau, the 23-year-old Saskatoon native is a first baseman with a powerful left-handed stroke and a burning ambition to play in the big leagues.
Machibroda, who grew up admiring Morneau, got an early Christmas present on December 20 when he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Twins.
“I was really excited about it,” said Machibroda in a phone interview. “But now it’s time to get to work and go earn a spot.”
The young slugger had dreamed about signing a big league contract, but he was pleasantly surprised when the deal came together so quickly with the Twins.
Three months ago, Machibroda was working on completing his schooling at Cumberland University, in Lebanon, Tenn., when he reached out to Ryan Smith, his former coach at the College of Central Florida, who’s now the hitting coach of the Twins’ Triple-A St. Paul Saints.
“I texted him and asked him if he knew of any indy ball teams he could hook me up with,” recalled Machibroda. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I can put your name out there.’”
Two months passed and Machibroda didn’t hear anything, then early last week, Smith contacted him and asked if he was still looking for a team.
“The next thing I know the director of player development (Drew MacPhail) for the Twins organization texted me and then 10 minutes later he called me and asked me if I was interested in signing . . . And I said, ‘Oh yeah, for sure,’” said Machibroda. “I was just looking to play baseball.”
The night of that phone call, he was emailed a contract and he’s now preparing to report to the Twins’ spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., in February – the facility where Morneau started his career.
But while Morneau was a heralded third-round pick, signed directly out of high school, Machibroda will arrive with less fanfare having played for five different college teams over the past five years. His college tenure was also interrupted by a COVID lockdown.
“It hasn’t been a direct road [to a pro contract] at all,” said Machibroda, “but I’ve been very fortunate for my experiences.”
Machibroda’s parents, Ray and Darlene, must be very proud of their son, who seems mature beyond his 23 years. Machibroda says it was his dad who introduced him to baseball.
“We were always out there playing catch and throwing the ball around when I was a kid and then I can remember going to my grandparents’ house and them throwing me little foam balls in the basement,” he said.
These days, Machibroda is a slugging first baseman/outfielder, but when he was playing Saskatoon minor ball, he was a pitcher and a left-handed throwing catcher.
“When I was younger, I caught a lot,” said Machibroda. “That was always one of my favourite things to do.”
Machibroda also benefited from playing in the backyard against his two older brothers. His oldest brother, Patrick, would pitch in the U.S. college ranks, while his other older brother, Evan, played football for the University of Saskatchewan.
Machibroda quickly became a standout on the diamond and he joined the Saskatoon Diamondbacks, an 18U Triple-A program headed by coach Matt Kosteniuk.
“The Diamondbacks helped me out tremendously,” said Machibroda. “They helped me with maturing in the game at a young age. They taught me that it’s a game of failure and you’ve got to be self-motivated and always keep a positive mindset.
“And Matt Kosteniuk was outstanding with helping me with my swing. He’s the guy that I still go to when I’m struggling at the plate.”
As a teen, Machibroda also played for Team Sask under Greg Brons.
“Competing with the best guys in Saskatchewan was always really fun,” said Machibroda. “And competing against other provinces and American teams was awesome. It was the best thing I could’ve asked for.”
Brons, whose official title is high performance director of Team Sask, has known Machibroda since the slugger was 12. In 2016, Machibroda was a key member of the provincial team Brons managed to a gold medal at the Baseball Canada Cup.
“Nolan can hit and he can hit for power,” said Brons. “He’s a big guy, so he can get it out there. The thing that I think that has really carried Nolan is his confidence. He’s confident in his abilities and he always has been and he has always shown initiative. He has always wanted to get better.”
Playing for his province helped Machibroda attract interest from U.S. colleges, starting with Chattanooga State Community College in 2018 and the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla., the following year. He then transferred to Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., to compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down.
He flew back to Saskatoon and was locked down for five months and relegated to hitting in a batting cage on a kids field behind his home.
Once cleared to return to the U.S., he transferred to Lubbock Christian University (NCAA) in 2021, where he batted .257 with eight home runs in 45 games, before landing at Cumberland University this year, where he enjoyed a breakout season.
“I probably played only about three of the first 10 or 12 games,” said Machibroda, reflecting on his 2022 college season. “I didn’t get off to a good start.”
And he admits that for the first time, he contemplated quitting.
“I got pretty down,” he said. “Fortunately, I had a lot of great teammates that supported me and knew what I could do and that really helped me out.”
He was plugged into the starting lineup at first base on February 16 against the Brescia Bearcats and went 3-for-4 with a home run, two doubles and five RBIs and never looked back.
“When I finally got my chance, I said, ‘I’m not going to sit on the bench anymore,’” he said.
And he didn’t.
He ended up hitting .460 with 17 home runs and a Mid-South Conference leading 83 RBIs. For his efforts, he was named a First Team All-American and the Mid-South Conference Player of the Year. He was also the first baseman on the Canadian Baseball Network’s All-Canadian Second Team.
“That first game [on February 16] instilled some confidence in me for the rest of the year,” said Machibroda. “It was pretty special what I was able to do but I felt like I always had that in me, and I was just finally able to put it all together. Now I hope I’m able to go to the next level and do the same.”
Following his college campaign, Machibroda returned to Canada for his third season with the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Weyburn Beavers. In 55 games, he hit .287 with seven home runs and 44 RBIs and was named team MVP.
One of the highlights for him was winning the WCBL’s Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in front of a sold-out crowd at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks, Alta. The left-handed hitting slugger put on a power display that had kids chasing balls on the road beyond the right field fence.
“I was just going out there and just trying to hit the ball as far as I could,” said Machibroda.
“I just went out there and had a lot of fun with it. That’s what baseball is about. That home run derby was my first ever home run derby so I was pretty excited and jittery for it . . . But it was a great experience.”
That power display had to have opened the eyes of more than a few scouts, and it was another highlight in what has been an outstanding year for Machibroda that has culminated in him signing his first pro contract.
He says his mother, Darlene, was the first person he told after he signed the contract.
“My parents have been very supportive of me. I went up to my mom right after I signed it and I told her and she was super ecstatic about that,” said Machibroda. “Then after that, I called my dad.”
It certainly hasn’t been an easy road to the pro ranks for Machibroda, but he is grateful for the support he has received from his family, his coaches in his home province and his college coaches.
“There have definitely been challenges along the way, but I’ve learned you’ve just got to push through them and know that there are better times ahead,” said Machibroda. “I’m a pretty optimistic guy so I always like to see the bright side of things.”
This off-season, he has been training at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex in Saskatoon and preparing to begin his pro career at the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
“It was always a goal to play professional baseball, but it’s still a goal to make it to the top of professional baseball – which would be the major leagues,” he said.