With the Toronto Blue Jays tied to almost every high-level free agent this off-season, the organization is currently setting its sites on trying to sign outfielder George Springer. If the Blue Jays can’t convince any veteran free agents to sign North of the border, the team may have to consider finding a permanent position for prospect Austin Martin.
After the World Series ended last season, the Toronto Blue Jays were rumoured to be big spenders right from the get-go. General manager Ross Atkins came out and said the team would be pursing big players and even super-agent Scott Boras reiterated the same thing, giving Blue Jays fans a bit of tease as to what the team was planning to do this off-season.
Fast forward to mid-January, and the Blue Jays have only signed Robbie Ray to a one-year deal, while free agents like Liam Hendriks and D.J. LeMahieu, players the team was interested in, decided to sign elsewhere. While the Ray signing does help the Blue Jays rotation for next season and the free-agent market is moving at snail’s pace, the lack of signings is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of Blue Jays fans who feel like they were promised more from the front office this winter.
With spring training coming around the corner, if the Blue Jays don’t sign any of the free agents they had their sights set on, there may be an internal solution just a year or two away.
Enter Blue Jays prospect Austin Martin.
Last year, the Jays had the fifth overall pick in the MLB Amateur Draft. Nobody predicted that one of the best offensive players in the draft would slide down to their slot, but nevertheless, Vanderbilt product Austin Martin was available when the Jays came to the podium and they didn’t hesitate to pick him up.
Spending the past three years at Vanderbilt University, Martin was widely regarded for his athletic ability and his batting prowess, hitting across the entire diamond and finding a way to put the ball in play on a consistent basis. In 665 plate appearances, the right-hander slashed .368/.474/.532 with 14 home runs and 76 RBI, stealing 43 bases in 57 attempts while also walking more times than he struck out (85 vs. 82).
When the Blue Jays drafted Martin, he was announced as a shortstop, which was a bit odd as he really didn’t spend a lot of time at the position during his college career (two games). During his time at Vanderbilt, Martin played all across the diamond, playing at first base, third base, and in the outfield during his freshman year. In 2019, Martin would spend a majority of the time at third base with a mix of second base and shortstop sprinkled in between, with the 2020 season being in the outfield, primarily as a centre fielder before COVID-19 shut down the collegiate season.
While he was announced as a shortstop, there has been no indication from the Blue Jays whether that will be his position moving forward. There is the potential that he could become the team’s second baseman or the shortstop and push Bo Bichette to second (hence being drafted as a shortstop), but scouts are predicting that Martin would be a good fit for the outfield or second base given his speed and that he had some accuracy issues when throwing across the diamond during his college days.
The centre field argument for Austin Martin
The Blue Jays do not possess extensive outfield depth within the farm system, which could see Martin switch positions to keep him in contention of joining the MLB roster while also keeping the current infield core right where they are. The biggest question mark to him becoming an MLB outfielder is whether or not he would have the defensive ability to replace Teoscaer Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., or Randal Grichuk, the current starters in the Blue Jays outfield. Hernandez had a fantastic season last year and Gurriel Jr. has a lot of potential, whether it be in the outfield or more towards a utility role given his previous infield experience, while Grichuk has the most experience compared to the other outfielders on the roster.
For centre field last season, Grichuk had the most games started at 47 and would finish the season with a -8 defensive runs saved (DRS) while Hernandez would finish with 1 DRS in five games started (he was the team’s primary right fielder). The Blue Jays could choose to run with this core moving forward, but given they are so attached to outfield free agents this winter, it would appear that they are looking for an upgrade.
The middle infield argument
One could argue that Martin should be kept in the middle infield with Bichette, whether it be at shortstop or second base, but the Blue Jays do possess more depth at these positions and have also been attached to free-agent middle infielders like Kolten Wong and LeMahieu before he signed with the Yankees. He did play 13 games at second base when he was in college so he’s not unfamiliar with the position, and his speed and athleticism would suit him well being up the middle.
The Jays might keep Martin in one of the keystone spots, in which case second base seems more to his calling rather than shortstop given the previous accuracy issues that he had in college ball. Internally, the Blue Jays have quite a few other internal options for shortstop other than Bichette like Jordan Groshans, Orelvis Martinez, and Miguel Hilrado, furthering the argument to put Martin at second.
The third base argument
While Vladimir Guerrero Jr. spent last season at first base and wants to return to third this season, the team doesn’t have a player slotted at the position with Travis Shaw being non-tendered this off-season. This could be Martin’s opportunity to crack the MLB roster, keeping him at the position that he played a majority of his college career, while also keeping Guerrero Jr. in the lineup and away from third base (where he has previously been a defensive liability).
Maybe Junior got better since we last saw him at the hot corner, and if that truly is the case, then the argument for Martin to switch to centre field or the middle infield becomes a little bit stronger with Vladito taking back his original position defensively. Martin did have some struggles throwing across the diamond during his third year at Vanderbilt, which is why he was put in the outfield until the season was ended due to the pandemic.
While the debate for where Martin should be playing is murky considering he spent the 2020 season at the alternate training site taking reps at second base, shortstop, and in centre field, there is no question that he has the potential to be a contributing everyday player in the MLB. He most likely won’t be joining the Blue Jays next year, but where he ends up playing on the field will most likely be answered during spring training this year.