Blue Jays bet big on young, gifted shortstop Orelvis Martinez

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, right, and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays spent the better part of two years scouting Orelvis Martinez and, as they got look after look after look at the 16-year-old shortstop, they became increasingly enamoured with his swing, his hands, his throwing arm and his game.

That’s why, when the international free agent period opened July 2, they decided to bet big on the young Dominican, giving him not only the second-biggest bonus in club history for that market at $3.5 million, but also devoting 70 per cent of their spending pool to a single player.

They used most of the remaining room under their $4,983,500 hard cap on power-hitting outfielder Amell Brazoban and heady catchers Javier D’Orazio and Junior Ramos, three other players among the list of 27 signings the club announced Friday to keep an eye on.

But the real measure of the Blue Jays’ work in this year’s signing period hinges on whether Martinez, whose bonus as a July 2 player trails only the $3.9 million given to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2015, is able to leverage his ample gifts in the years to come.

“When you’re making a big commitment like this, certainly a large percentage of your pool towards one player, you want to feel as comfortable as possible with the bat first and foremost, and we’ve just seen this guy hit a lot,” Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays assistant general manager who oversees international operations, said in an interview. “The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.

“It at least shows you that potential with a quality skill-set.”

The similar leap of faith the Blue Jays took with Guerrero three years ago looks likely to pay off, with the 19-year-old third baseman now considered baseball’s best prospect. And there’s a case to be made that if a team isn’t going to bottom out in the standings to pick at the top of the draft, spending big in the July 2 market is an alternative pathway to premium young talent.

On the flip side, the volatility is amplified in international free agency because the players are as young as 16 and they’re that much further away from the big-leagues. Given that, the safer play is to diversify the signings and distribute money more evenly between elite players.

That’s what they did last year, when they signed five players for between $500,000 and the $1.4 million they gave righty Eric Pardinho, who is impressing at rookie-league Bluefield. Leonardo Jimenez, Alejandro Melean, Miguel Hiraldo and Alberto Rodriguez were the others.

“That’s just what the market and what the opportunities dictated for us at the time,” said Tinnish. “This market is different. There are a lot of good players that other teams signed and we really like our player a lot.”

Tinnish estimates that he saw Martinez take an estimated 65-70 at-bats while Sandy Rosario, the club’s director of Latin American operations, watched substantially more.

“He’s liked this kid for a long time,” said Tinnish. “Would I feel comfortable committing $3.5 million to one player if I had seen five or 10 at-bats with him and Sandy had, like, 15 or 20? No chance. That type of thing is irresponsible scouting.”

Instead, several others in the front office also got multiple looks over the course of two years and his progress was compared, “apples to apples, to the other players you see in the class, and to other players you’ve seen historically in that market at that age,” explained Tinnish.

That helped them buy into Martinez’s raw abilities, convincing the Blue Jays that he could “potentially have four-plus tools down the road.”

“Speed is probably the toughest one to predict, but he’s got a great feel to hit. He’s got a loose swing with power. Really good plate discipline,” said Tinnish. “Defensively, the biggest question long-term for him would probably be range, but these are really, really advanced hands and a really, really good arm. If he doesn’t get to that plus range element, he has other things to help make up for that — quality hands, arm strength, that sort of thing.”

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.

Now, the hard part begins for Martinez and the others, who will work out of the club’s complex in the Dominican Republic and play in an exhibition loop that runs from mid-July through late August for newly signed players.

Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, who wasn’t a big bonus baby and instead grinded until he convinced Houston to sign him, remembers a coach telling him, “You did a lot of tryouts before you signed, but after you sign, you do a tryout every day.”

That’s why Hernandez’s advice to the newest Blue Jays is, “If they worked hard before the signed, they have to work harder after.”

“You have to show the team you can be a good baseball player and you can make it and help them in the big-leagues,” said Hernandez.

Beyond the dollars, the Blue Jays have spent a lot to find out if Martinez can do just that.

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