TORONTO – Austin Martin is a friendly dude so when a Toronto Blue Jays teammate he hadn’t yet met sat across from him in the waiting area for COVID-19 tests, the fifth-overall pick in last year’s draft introduced himself.
“Hey, I’m Austin, nice to meet you,” he said.
“I’m Marcus, nice to meet you, too,” was the warm reply.
“Where are you from, Marcus?” he followed up.
“I’m from Oakland. Grew up there. I played in Oakland, too.”
Martin’s turn for the pre-camp screening truncated the chat.
“That’s cool, man,” he said to his new friend. “I’ll catch you around.”
Martin proceeded to take his saliva test and as he left the facility to await the results, he walked out with fellow top prospect Jordan Groshans.
“Who was that guy you were talking to?” he asked.
“A guy named Marcus from Oakland,” Martin answered.
“Oh, you were talking to Semien?” asked Groshans.
“Oh, shoot! You’re probably right,” said Martin, at long last cluing into the obvious.
“It was actually pretty hilarious,” he recalled during an interview. “I didn’t put two and two together. Super nice guy. Humble guy. That’s cool to see guys that are actually doing it at that next level and being, ‘How everybody’s been?’ Just very open and welcoming. Just a regular guy.”
Semien – an MVP-calibre talent new to the Blue Jays on an $18-million, one-year deal – is far more than just a regular guy, but his accessibility is one of the many important elements he brings to the table. And one of the benefits of the current major/minor-league hybrid camp forced by COVID-19 protocols, aided by the uniting of the entire organization under one roof at the club’s new spring complex, is the type of random interaction Martin experienced.
In years past, of course, a prospect of Martin’s calibre – along with fellow infielder Groshans, right-handers Alek Manoah, Simeon Woods Richardson and Adam Kloffenstein, and catcher Gabriel Moreno – would have been a spring-time focal point.
Recall how in recent years the timelines of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson, to name but a few, were the subject of constant conjecture.
Now, the kids are the supplemental underpinning of a strong foundation of depth beneath a solid big-league roster, a secondary wave that gives the Blue Jays a chance to replenish the core in years to come and keep the current competitive window open for an extended period.
Manoah, the 2019 first-rounder taken 11th overall, described it as a blessing “to be with a group of those guys that are going to be the next generation.”
“We’re going to win a World Series here,” he added. “We’re going to be a part of it.”
The Blue Jays love such aspirational talk, although judging the progress of their top young talent during the pandemic-marred 2020 is no simple task.
Consider that Martin went 3-for-4 with a triple for Vanderbilt last March 11 and then didn’t see anything resembling real action until he showed up for camp in Toronto last July, en route to a summer in Rochester at the alternate training site.
“I’m coming from playing a midweek game against Toledo on Wednesday to my next baseball encounter being against triple-A/big-league arms,” said Martin. “It was a little nerve-wracking at first, I’ll be completely honest. It’s just a different environment. It’s something new. And when you’re in a new environment, it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable. Myself personally, I didn’t think (the jump) was too much. It was a good environment. A comfortable environment. All the big-league guys were really open and welcoming. It was pretty easy to adjust.”
Martin spent the rest of the summer getting his reps in at shortstop, where he said he’ll pick up his work this spring. Defence was a focal point for him at Rochester, working closely with Cesar Martin and Danny Solano on his footwork and throwing.
“It was pretty simple,” he explained. “We did footwork (drills) going through the motions of fielding it, trying to put your body in the best position to throw the baseball. It was them explaining to me how to attack the baseball the right way and the most efficient way.”
At the plate, where he was often described as the most complete hitter available in last year’s draft, the approach was less regimented as he wasn’t looking to make any significant adjustments.
Instead, “I was just trying to get in the box and compete. That’s it.”
Done and done, according to Manoah, who frequently locked horns with Martin in Rochester. The 6-6, 260-pound righty finished 2019 at short-season-A Vancouver and was positioned for a quick rise last year before the pandemic hit.
Without real games to pitch in, he spent the summer prioritizing a changeup he now feels confident throwing in any count, his repertoire honed in part while facing his now springtime roommate.
“Austin’s a special talent,” said Manoah. “He’s a really good ballplayer and he’s a really good mental player, as well. His instincts are well-above average. In the box, there are a lot of times he won’t swing at a pitch that I’m like, I got him on this. And then there are a lot of times, where I do get him. We have a great time facing off against each other. Just being able to get at it against each other has been a blast.”
Manoah made a point of picking the brain of Martin and everyone else he faced, sometimes pausing the game to immediately ask why the batter didn’t swing at the pitch he had just thrown. Once the game was over, the info all went into a notebook, and sometimes he’d arrive at the park the next day with follow-up questions.
“I’m like a sponge. I want to know. I want answers. I want to know what others are thinking, because that really helps me get a knowledge and a feel for what the hitter is trying to do, what their approach is,” he said. “Those conversations really opened my horizon and allowed me to gain a lot of knowledge there.”
The same goes for Martin, who followed the abrupt end of his collegiate career with couple of makeshift months in pro ball. This spring training isn’t exactly normal, but it’s step closer to a normal turn on the field, with real games on the regular.
“This is great,” he said of big-league camp. “I’m grateful for the opportunity the Blue Jays have given me, to once again be around these big-league guys, feel the grass and gain as much knowledge and get as comfortable with that environment as I possibly can. I’m excited and looking forward to getting back out on the field, playing ball and doing my thing, again.”