TORONTO -- A year ago, one Vanderbilt star, Kumar Rocker, asked another, Austin Martin, where he’d like to get drafted at the end of the season.
Rocker, now 20, was a top high school prospect ahead of the 2018 MLB Draft before sticking with his commitment to Vanderbilt, where he’s lived up to the hype. He's now the No. 1 prospect heading into the '21 Draft. Martin, who just signed for the biggest Draft bonus in Blue Jays history, was about to go under the microscope as one of the top names in the '20 Draft class. These are the conversations that only a select group of young players can have.
“I only had two teams,” Martin said during a Zoom call on Thursday. “It was either to stay in Florida with Miami, or Toronto. I’ve heard so many things, and I’m super excited. I’m glad things turned out the way they did.”
That isn’t something baseball fans in Canada are used to hearing. The Blue Jays aren’t on the bottom of anyone’s list, by any means, but being the lone team outside of the United States comes with its own basic realities. Instead, players typically come to love the city of Toronto after they've already arrived.
So through some good fortune, Martin and the Blue Jays have found themselves in a happy marriage. The club was “ecstatic” to see the Draft’s No. 2 prospect fall to No. 5, which very few saw coming, and it’s easy to add one more “and” when you list the Blue Jays’ young position-player core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio ... and Martin.
On Friday, the Blue Jays officially added Martin to their 60-man Player Pool, and he's expected to join the MLB club soon at Rogers Centre.
Here's what you need to know about the Blue Jays' next top prospect.
Shaped by his family
On Thursday, Martin was asked what his greatest strengths were. There’s plenty to choose, from his bat to his plate approach to his versatility, but Martin went immediately into an explanation of how his parents are responsible for the person, and player, that he is at 21.
“I come from a humble background,” Martin said. “My mom’s a nurse, my dad’s an air traffic controller. They had me at a really young age. I think my mom was 20 years old, so they were young and didn’t really have much in the beginning. I think a lot of my competitiveness and my work ethic stems from watching my parents do it. They set a great example for me.”
When Martin’s parents had him, his mother was working as a clerk at a gas station and his father was still in school. He watched what it took for them to provide for him and his sisters while they “didn’t have much,” as he puts it. This meant plenty of time at his grandmother’s house, where he and his cousins would turn every game they could into a competition. Everything was earned.
Rooted in all of this, there’s one way that Martin doesn’t fit into the Blue Jays’ young core.
Unlike the baseball legacies of Bichette, Biggio and Guerrero, Martin is from a soccer family. Nobody in Martin’s family was a baseball player. There is no bloodline to a Hall of Fame father but, instead, a story about a kid with a stick and a ball.
“When I was 18 months old, my dad and mom were watching me and I was playing in the living room with a ball and a stick,” Martin said. “I was tossing the ball up and I was hitting it with a stick. You know what happens next, they put me in soccer for a couple of years. But after I played soccer for a year, I went into tee-ball, I think at 4. It just carried on from there.”
On the field
There’s a simplicity to Martin’s game, which is typically what’s at play when a player is labeled “a natural.”
Martin walked more than he struck out in college, and a large part of that is due to his tremendous bat-to-ball skills. He might not lead the team in home runs, but his ability to barrel up balls to all fields has the potential to be a dominant tool.
“My approach is very simple. I think hitting is complicated enough as it is, so I try to simplify everything,” Martin said. “When I’m in the box, I’m looking for a fastball. If you hang a breaking ball, I’ll hit it.”
One of the reasons Toronto ranked so highly on Martin’s list was because of former Vanderbilt teammate Philip Clarke, who was selected by the Blue Jays in the ninth round of the 2019 Draft before he made his pro debut with the Class A Short-Season Vancouver Canadians. Having a former teammate who’s lived both the Blue Jays experience and the Canadian experience helped to demystify things, and there’s one message that stuck.
“He said that it was a great atmosphere. The country is beautiful, the people are very nice,” Martin said. “I liked the point where he said that you’re not playing for a city, you’re playing for a country.”