Blue Jays take big swing at Vanderbilt prospect
On his way to being touted as one of the best pure hitters available in Major League Baseball’s 2020 draft, Austin Martin developed a reputation as a terrific contact hitter with a side order of power.
When he fell to the fifth pick of the 2020 amateur draft on Wednesday night, the Toronto Blue Jays were ready to take a big swing at the 21-year-old from Vanderbilt University.
And perhaps add a steal to the stats line while they’re at it.
A versatile infielder/outfielder, Martin was ranked second entering the draft by MLB Pipeline and was surprisingly still available for the Jays, who were making their highest pick since selecting Vernon Wells at the same No. 5 spot in 1997.
Jays scouting director Shane Farrell must have been tickled at what was unfolding as he oversaw his first big league draft.
“We were a little surprised,” Farrell said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday night. “It really started to shake up at picks two and three, but we were certainly prepared to make that selection. We identified Austin as high-end talent and we were fortunate enough for him to be still available when we picked.”
In nabbing Martin, the Jays have yet another versatile young stud to join a powerful, promising young core headed by Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio.
“I’m ready for whatever they want to throw at me,” Martin told MLB Network when it was suggested that he could play at any number of positions in Toronto. “I’m really excited.”
Like any high pick out of college, Martin will be keen on advancing as quickly as possible to make it to the big leagues. He’s also enthused about reuniting with a former teammate and fellow Florida high school product.
“I’m excited (about being drafted by the Jays),” Martin said. “I’ve heard a lot of good things. What a lot of people don’t know is I’m a former teammate of Bo Bichette when we were younger. It will be cool to get up there with him again.”
Martin played a variety of positions at Vandy, one of the top NCAA programs that has become a factory at producing elite MLB talent. In 2019, the Jacksonville, Fla., native had 105 hits in 65 games with 10 homers, 85 walks and 46 RBI.
Even with an aborted college season in 2020, the Jays were well-versed in Martin’s ability. Scouts followed him in his high school years in Jacksonville and even closer under the glare in Nashville with the high-profile Vandy program.
“He’s a well above average hitter,” Farrell said. “This is a guy who manages the strike zone really well. Extremely high contract rates, somebody we think has the ability to grow into more power down the road but just really good bat to ball skills and ability to manage the strike zone.”
The shakeup at the top was certainly a surprise in this dramatically retooled draft. Bludgeoned from 40 rounds to five in reaction to the economic tug of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jays won’t be able to take full advantage of the 2019 tanked season.
They may make up for it with the good fortune of a potential superstar pick in the first round, however. So how did Martin make his way to the Jays and general manager Ross Atkins?
As expected, the Detroit Tigers opened with consensus No. 1 Spencer Torkelson but the lowly Baltimore Orioles started the mayhem by taking outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the second pick. Pitchers Max Meyer (Marlins) and Asa Lacy (Royals) went next, opening the door for an elite-level talent that was expected to go higher.
Martin played most of his NCAA career at third base but saw time at several positions, including a dozen games in centre field in the abridged 2020 campaign.
Like many organizations, the Jays covet such versatility, but it will be his bat that propels Martin through the Jays’ minor league system.
“He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve seen,” Vanderbilt hitting coach Mike Baxter told Cbssports.com. “He has the natural desire to win and to beat you. He does a really good job of knowing how to harness that, especially from an offensive standpoint.
“It’s a big challenge for hitters, but he’s shown a really good ability to do that.”
Martin has also proven to be a winner at a high-end program. Batting leadoff for the Commodores in 2019, Martin led the
SEC with a .392 average and .486 on-base percentage as his team went on to capture the College World Series.
“Austin’s performance will dictate that,” Farrell said when asked how quick he might progress to join the young talent currently on the Jays roster. “I’m anxious and looking forward to the day that we are able to get him in uniform and am excited to watch him play.”
Toronto draft pick Austin Martin had a .392 average with Vanderbilt in 2019 as they won the College World Series.
Jays GM Ross Atkins