Blue Jays’ Austin Martin faces unclear journey to majors amid pandemic

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Good Show to discuss Austin Martin falling on the Blue Jays lap at #5 in the 2020 MLB Draft, and why it was important to select based on best available player over biggest need.

Think about the characteristics the Toronto Blue Jays have shown us — and often told us — they covet in young players. Think Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Jordan Groshans.

Discerning hitters that manage the strike zone and bring a plan to the plate, aggressively attacking early fastballs while showing a willingness to make adjustments, battle and put the ball in play when they’re behind in counts. Versatile, up-the-middle defenders that can be deployed at various positions around the diamond. Big bat speed; high exit velocities; maturity on the field and off. Born athletes that embrace their competitive nature, play with a bit of nastiness, and not only want to be great but are unafraid to tell you about it.

Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin checks all those boxes. So when it came time for the Blue Jays to make the fifth overall selection in the 2020 MLB Draft, and Martin’s name was still on the board, there couldn’t have been much hesitation.

“He’s a very exciting talent that we feel really could complement our young core well. The consistency of his at-bats, the discipline within his at-bats, the contact rate, with power, the defensive versatility — we’re excited about the overall athleticism, the character, the person that we have a long history with, knowing him back to his high school days,” said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. “We’re extremely excited to have the potential to add him to this organization.”

Atkins has to be careful with his phrasing on that last bit there, as Martin hasn’t yet signed a professional contract. First, there is the matter of Toronto negotiating a bonus with Martin’s advisor, Scott Boras. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

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The slot value of the No. 5 pick is $6.18 million, and since Martin was widely expected to go earlier in the draft, it’s possible the Blue Jays will have to exceed that to sign him, potentially freeing up some money by cutting a below-slot deal with a player they selected later on.

Of course, it would be a massive shock if a deal didn’t get done. The Blue Jays would have known Martin’s number in advance of selecting him. And considering how well the draft broke for Toronto, not capitalizing on this opportunity would be an extreme disappointment.

And from Martin’s perspective, while he does hold the leverage of potentially returning to school for another year, he’d be doing so with no guarantee of when college baseball may resume, with little insight as to what the MLB draft will look like next year, and while accepting the risk of getting injured or slumping and hurting his currently extremely-high stock.

Boras obviously has a history of tenacious negotiating and dragging discussions right down to the wire. But both sides should have plenty of motivation to reach an agreement.

So, forget about that for a minute and assume Martin signs. Where does he go from here? Organized baseball is not currently being played in North America and there’s plenty of uncertainty as to when it may resume. MLB organizations have been culling minor-leaguers and this week’s five-round draft isn’t going to restock the shelves. No baseball official will say it definitively, but it’s extremely hard to imagine the 2020 minor-league season being played.

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What seems more likely are, at least, informal backfield scrimmages between clubs with spring training sites not far from one another. And, at most, a more formal summer instructional league or expanded Fall League in Arizona, Florida, or both. That could be the most realistic path to live repetitions for not only Martin but fellow top Blue Jays prospects like Groshans, Alek Manoah, and Simeon Woods-Richardson, who all need them.

Giving young, developing players exposure to game environments is extremely important as recently-amateur athletes continue to learn their strengths and weaknesses, make adjustments to higher levels of competition, and acclimatize to the daily grind of a professional season. Take Martin, who played just 16 games earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down NCAA athletics. He made only 69 trips to the plate, giving him 665 for his college career, or, about the same amount he’d make in one full season of big-league ball.

Consider the fact he’ll be using wooden bats instead of aluminum, he’ll be facing bigger velocity and nastier breaking stuff from pitchers of a more consistently high quality. He’ll be fielding balls that come off bats at greater rates of speed from hitters who run faster up the line. And he’ll be doing it all under a finer microscope with more frequent games, more arduous travel, and more demands on his time outside of competition, and you can see why every morsel of game experience he gets now is so valuable.

But when might his next game be? No one knows.

“We don’t have clarity on that yet,” Atkins said. “We have more-than weekly phone calls that are occurring with groups of 30 to 50 individuals — and with breakout groups, as well — talking about potential solutions in the short term and long term for our minor-league players. There’s a lot of creativity there. There’s a lot of good ideas that sound feasible. It’s just a matter of being able to get everyone to the table to talk about and execute that. And, right now, I just don’t have any more clarity on it.”

It’ll be interesting to see how that impacts Martin’s path to the majors, assuming he continues to hit and defend as capably as he has to this point in his young life. A bit of a precedent has been set over recent years for how clubs can advance premium offensive talents drafted out of college. Players like Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon spent most of their draft seasons in A-ball, reaching the upper minors and eventually the majors only a year later. Could Martin follow a similar path? Or will his lack of playing time this season delay his progress?

“I think the industry has gotten better at developing players and transitioning players. I think that you can look to just the resources that are put into player development departments across baseball and see why that is,” Atkins said. “I would say similar things for the amateur game and how advanced amateur players are, especially coming from elite programs like Vanderbilt. What they’re exposed to has really sped up the transition of amateur talent into professional baseball.”

But before MLB clubs can find a solution for minor-leaguers, they must first determine one for major-leaguers. Wednesday, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred put the chances of baseball being played in 2020 at “100 per cent,” which makes sense, as he holds the ability to unilaterally impose a regular season of any length he desires — which could be as short as 48-52 games — provided clubs agree to pay players a pro-rated portion of their contracts.

Of course, a more ideal scenario would see MLB owners and the Players’ Association reaching a compromise to their current dispute that would allow for players to be paid those pro-rated salaries over a longer season, which would benefit the game’s integrity, in exchange for an expanded playoffs, which would benefit the game’s revenues. But either way, MLB baseball’s almost certainly going to be played. Which begs the question of where the Blue Jays might play it.

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In an ideal world, Rogers Centre would host the club’s home schedule. But the Canada-U.S. border is currently closed and any travellers arriving in Canada are subject to medical screening and 14 days of self-isolation — or a full quarantine if they show symptoms of COVID-19. That certainly complicates matters. And the Blue Jays have done their due diligence on alternative venues, with an obvious fit being the club’s spring training home in Dunedin, Fla.

Of course, that would pose its own challenges. Anyone who’s spent time in Florida during the summer months can attest to the climate’s oppressive nature. Florida State League hitters tell stories of having sweat through their uniforms prior to their first plate appearance; pitchers recall feeling like they’re going to pass out on the mound during long innings. Would the Blue Jays want to play games under those conditions?

And would the recently-renovated TD Ballpark even be up to big-league standards? It’s a minor-league facility, after all. Players will be cramped and without some of the usual luxuries they’ve grown accustomed to in a major-league clubhouse. Visiting players and umpires, too.

It’s also important to remember that if fans are not permitted to attend games, this season’s MLB would be a made-for-TV product. It might as well be played on a sound stage in a Hollywood lot. Would TD Ballpark allow for as many camera stations and broadcast features as necessary to provide an appealing telecast for Blue Jays fans who can’t watch their team live?

A more pragmatic scenario may be to have the Blue Jays split the domed Tropicana Field with the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s broadcast ready and equipped with all the cameras and sensors necessary to execute instant replay and data tracking. But that could create an awkward dilemma in which the Blue Jays would be without a fixed clubhouse or would be forced to share one with the Rays.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

It’s a lot to consider and the Blue Jays have clearly been contemplating it. But like everything in this bizarre year of human history, nothing is certain.

“We’ll see,” Atkins said when asked if the Blue Jays could potentially play at Rogers Centre in 2020. “I think there’s certain hurdles that need to be passed. I certainly hope so. I will remain hopeful and optimistic that we are united [in Toronto.] There’s not a member of this organization that doesn’t want that.

“The [alternative] options are either playing in Florida, playing in another Major League stadium or playing in a minor-league facility. There could be other alternatives. Those are the ones that we have considered.

“Major League Baseball will be involved. Potentially other Major League Baseball teams will be involved. We know that we can play in Dunedin. And we just want to make sure that we exhaust all of our alternatives as we consider that. And we need to do that in partnering with Major League Baseball.”

So, we’ll see. That applies to where the Blue Jays will play, where Martin will play, and how soon he could play for the Blue Jays. All we know for sure is that with its highest draft selection in decades, Toronto got a premium player pre-loaded with many of the characteristics they covet. And that’s the best thing that’s happened to this team all year.

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