TORONTO — As they prepared for the 2020 draft, Toronto Blue Jays decision makers knew they’d be adding an elite amateur player to their organization. A 95-loss season in 2019 assured them of that.
What they did not know was just how much talent they’d have to choose from. First, the Orioles took Heston Kjerstad earlier than expected, at No. 2. Then the Marlins reached a little for Max Meyer. And by the time the Blue Jays selected, a consensus top-two talent in the draft was still available.
Suddenly, first-year scouting director Shane Farrell had a chance to acquire a player he thought would be off the board. Surprised but ‘ecstatic,’ he made the pick: Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin.
Best player available is one thing. Some consider Martin the best player of all. A few days ago, Keith Law of The Athletic ranked Martin atop his list of eligible players. Shortly after the pick was announced on MLB Network, former general manager Dan O’Dowd said the Blue Jays got the best player in the draft. Elsewhere, Baseball America and MLB Pipeline both ranked Martin second among all draft prospects, behind only Spencer Torkelson, who went first overall to the Tigers.
Regardless of where you place Martin, the industry consensus is clear: he was supposed to be gone when Toronto picked. Instead, he joins a Blue Jays organization that already boasts its share of young talent. The question becomes, where will he play and how soon can he reach the majors?
First, though, let’s focus on Martin’s best attribute: his bat. A right-handed hitter, he batted .338 as a freshman at Vanderbilt while stealing 22 bases. But it was his sophomore year that made him an elite prospect. Martin led the SEC with a .392 average and .486 on-base percentage in 2019, while walking more often than he struck out.
He has shown some power, with 10 home runs last year, but to this point the majority of his offensive value has come from his strike zone judgment and ability to make consistently hard contact. In recognition of those skills, MLB Pipeline gave Martin’s hitting ability a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
“This is a guy who knows the strike zone really well,” Farrell said. “Extremely high contact rate. Somebody who we think has the ability to grow into more power down the road. Just really good bat to ball skills and ability to manage the strike zone.”
And maybe the power will come for Martin, who hit .368/.474/.532 with 14 home runs and 39 doubles in 140 career games at Vanderbilt. O’Dowd compared him to Mookie Betts on Wednesday, while Kiley McDaniel of ESPN has mentioned Justin Turner and Ben Zobrist as relevant points of reference.
All three of those big-leaguers offer the versatility to play multiple positions and that’s another reason the Blue Jays were drawn to Martin. He started games at six different positions during his freshman year at Vanderbilt, split his sophomore year between second and third and was announced on draft day as a shortstop.
“The fact that he’s shown the defensive ability to play multiple spots up the middle is exciting and valuable,” Farrell said. “In terms of future position, we don’t want to chart a player’s development without his participation, so we’re looking forward to getting to know Austin even more and discussing those things.”
At this point, it’s too early to worry about where Martin eventually plays in the majors. He can work with the Blue Jays’ player development team to build his skills around the diamond and keep the team’s options open. If he comes close to fulfilling his potential at the plate, there will be no issue finding a spot for him somewhere, especially when the Blue Jays’ roster already includes versatile players such as Cavan Biggio.
In the weeks ahead, the Blue Jays will look to formalize an agreement with Martin, who’s represented by agent Scott Boras. But once they do, there’s no clear path for what’s next. While players would typically join a short-season affiliate after signing, a traditional minor-league season won’t take place in 2020 due to the pandemic. That will require creativity from teams, and Farrell declined to discuss specifics on that topic.
When Martin’s pro career does begin, he has a chance to rise quickly through the minors and join a young Blue Jays core. At 21 years old, he’s the same age as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and just a year younger than Bo Bichette. While there are no guarantees in the draft, there’s a chance the Blue Jays added another core piece here.
Best-case scenario, he could reach the major-leagues by late 2021 or early 2022. Consider Andrew Benintendi, another former SEC standout who was selected seventh overall in 2015. He started the following year at high-A, progressed quickly to double-A and reached the majors late in 2016. By 2017, just two years after being drafted, he had a 20-20 season that generated 2.9 wins above replacement.
That kind of timeline is aggressive, especially considering there’s no minor-league baseball right now. But advanced college bats like Benintendi and Michael Conforto show that such a path exists. As Farrell said, “Austin’s performance will dictate that.”
Of course with top prospects, it’s not a matter of seeing how quickly they can reach the majors. Rather, it’s a question of maximizing their production once they arrive. And in Martin, the Blue Jays appear to have found someone capable of providing the kind of impact that’s very rarely available.