TORONTO – The chatter started late last week, with suggestions that the Baltimore Orioles might go off the draft board with the second pick. “There’s a smokescreen there,” said one agent.
Still, as Wednesday night’s first round approached, the consensus among experts remained that they’d take Austin Martin from Vanderbilt, a predominantly third baseman/outfielder widely considered the best pure hitter available. “His profile is as complete as it gets in the 2020 class,” Baseball America wrote of him in their rankings.
Only at the moment of truth, the Orioles defied the predictions and chose Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, likely to create room in their signing bonus pool for use on later picks. The Miami Marlins offered up another surprise when they chose Minnesota right-hander Max Meyer at No. 3, taking the flamethrower pegged to land with the Blue Jays. The Kansas City Royals then chose Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy, who was expected to land in South Beach.
Then it was the Blue Jays’ turn, the unexpected windfall of Martin staring them in the face, and there was little hesitation for amateur scouting director Shane Farrell, who 10 years ago was Toronto’s 46th-round pick and on Wednesday was running a draft for the first time.
“We were a little surprised,” that Martin was available, Farrell admitted on a conference call. “Obviously we’re keeping an eye on the mock drafts as they come out throughout the week and are aware of industry consensus, but it really started to shake up at picks two and three and we were surprised a bit but certainly prepared to make that selection.
“We were ecstatic to have the chance to pick Austin.”
The pick is intriguing on a number of levels, from the way his high-contact, control-the-strike-zone, potential-for-power game has the potential to complement Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Danny Jansen, to the uncertainty about where he ultimately fits on the diamond, with Farrell offering up no firm plans for the 21-year-old just yet.
Not to be lost is that Martin is an advisee of Scott Boras, and is the first player working with the super-agent to be drafted by the Blue Jays since Canadian lefty James Paxton 37th overall in 2009. Failure to reach an agreement led to a messy chain of events for Paxton, and the club didn’t field another Boras client until the 2016 signing of Franklin Morales.
A more meaningful engagement with Boras, who two years ago memorably chided the team for having a “Blue Flu,” came this past winter with the signing of ace lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu to an $80-million, four-year deal.
Drafting Martin, sure to demand the No. 5 pick’s full slot value of $6,180,700 if not more, means taking on years of Boras’s aggressive advocacy, and the willingness to do so represents an important step for the organization. The Blue Jays could have let signability concerns swing them toward a safer path, but they committed to taking the best player available and when Martin unexpectedly fell to them, they were ready and willing to do so.
“A lot of this work is done over the course of a calendar year and not just done in the spring,” Farrell said in explaining how the club had prepared for such a scenario. “Our area scout Nate Murrie has done an excellent job getting to know Austin, getting to know the people and different resources around Austin to figure out what type of player he is, what type of person he is, the work habits, the work ethic and things like that. We’re spending time on these guys all year.”
“Picking as high as we did this year,” he continued, “we were fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time on the top 10 or so players that we felt were at the top of the draft. That’s not to say we would have cut time short on Austin at any point, just because we thought he was likely to potentially be selected before we picked.”
That Martin had been long linked to the Orioles and that they passed on him sets up an intriguing divisional dynamic, linking the career of the right-handed hitter with that of Kjerstad.
If he blossoms into a star while Kjerstad flops, he could haunt Baltimore 19 times a season for years.
Then again, the Orioles have a smart general manager in Mike Elias, who helped the Houston Astros draft their way to a now tainted World Series. They have their reasons for taking a different road.
“It doesn’t make us pause because we believe and we trust in the work that’s been done up to that point,” said Farrell. “We trust our scouts to build these relationships, we trust the scouts to write their evaluations and the analysts to do their work in how we see this type of player integrating with our player development system, so we’re never worried about our own process, or evaluation of the player. We can’t control what happens or who is selected in front of us. Austin happened to be there when we picked and we were excited to make that pick.”
As they should be.
Picking at five was both the compensation for a soul-sucking, 95-loss grind in 2019, and a last opportunity to dramatically impact the farm system before the big-league club is expected to rebound. One way or another they were going to have a shot at picking a really good player, but the Blue Jays landed themselves someone with the potential to be a great one.