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Orioles 2020 draft preview: Austin Martin

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If the Orioles do what prospect writers think they should do with the #2 pick, they’ll take Vanderbilt’s jack of all trades, Austin Martin.

College World Series - Michigan v Vanderbilt - Game Three
Possible future Oriole Austin Martin in action in the College World Series last year.
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

There aren’t many benefits to a baseball team being as bad as the Orioles have been for the past couple of seasons. One of the few benefits is that when draft time rolls around, they will get their choice of the best amateur talent with the hope that the players they choose will be able to eventually reverse the team’s fortunes.

Or at least, that’s the idea. Orioles fans are well acquainted with how bad the team was from 2006-2011, when the O’s received a top five pick in the next June’s draft each time. This ultimately turned into much less of a bonanza for the franchise as fans might have hoped, with only Manny Machado turning into the smashing success that was envisioned at the time he was drafted.

The failure of the 2019 Orioles might as well have been metaphorically set in stone even before the season began. After 162 games of very bad baseball, their 54-108 record proved to be the second-worst in MLB, so here they are in June 2020 looking at the choices for the #2 pick in the draft. They won’t get the first crack at the best player, which isn’t bad either. 2013 #2 pick Kris Bryant and 2015 #2 pick Alex Bregman have turned out to be better picks than the guys taken before them.

Current Orioles GM Mike Elias was with the Astros when they nabbed Bregman in 2015. Hopefully he can bring some of that experience to picking a great player for the O’s in 2020.

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at the players whose names have come up in conjunction with the mock drafts up to this point. The first of these is Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, the consensus (though not universal) #2 prospect available in the draft, behind Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson.

If you’ve looked at one of those mocks lately, you’ve probably seen Martin as the player going to the Orioles. He’s there at #2 for Baseball America, ESPN, and MLB Pipeline, among others. You don’t have to read very far into a scouting report, like this one from Pipeline, to see why he’s thought of so well:

The best pure hitter in the 2020 Draft, Martin has tremendous feel for the barrel and makes consistent hard contact with a short, quick right-handed stroke. He’s not overly physical and may not have more than average raw power, but his hitting ability allows him to tap into every bit of it. He controls the strike zone extremely well and uses the entire field, exhibiting no weaknesses at the plate.

The phrase “the best pure hitter in the 2020 Draft” is certainly an exciting one to read about a potential pick of your favorite baseball team. Yes, that sounds good. I would like the Orioles to have the best pure hitter in the draft. Though even this little capsule comes with a downside, if you find “may not have more than average raw power” concerning.

At Fangraphs, where Martin is edged out just slightly by Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy for the spot as the #2 prospect, the report still sounds pretty good:

He had more walks than strikeouts as a sophomore and started hitting for power late in that season, something his combination of selectivity and gorgeous, natural swing loft give him an excellent chance of doing in pro ball despite middling raw juice. Martin doesn’t have huge physical tools at first blush, but he is a sneaky plus runner and should be fine in center field whether playing there full time or as part of a multi-positional package.

The “more walks than strikeouts” is usually a good sign for a college hitter of being able to carry over plate discipline into the pros, especially when he was able to do that at a major college program, like Martin did. That Vanderbilt team won the College World Series last year. Martin faced his share of future MLBers and scouts came away from that season thinking of him as one of the potential top three to five players in this year’s draft.

That impression hasn’t changed this spring, in part because the cancellation of just about every sport as part of the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 meant that nothing could change. College seasons were underway when everything stopped, but they hadn’t played very many games, so no one had much opportunity to change opinions of them.

Even the limited action over the course of the spring was sufficient to leave it looking unlikely that Martin would be a full-time shortstop, with the conversation around him now often mentioning positional versatility that could include third base, second base, and center field.

This is another one of those things where, in the event that Martin works out as a pro, it’ll be easy to look back and say, “Oh, well, of course the guy who didn’t have a position and only hit for 11 total homers in college wasn’t going to work out.” The history of the draft is full of can’t-miss guys who still end up missing. Orioles fans over the last 10 years or so know this as well as anyone. But as far as right now goes, he’s got prospect writers like ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel noting a similarity to Ben Zobrist or Justin Turner.

Those are guys who’ve found real success with versatility, though the O’s of the future will probably be hoping Martin doesn’t wait until age 28 (Zobrist) or age 29 (Turner) to break out offensively. It would not feel like a great outcome for the Orioles having the #2 pick in 2020 if they take a college player and only start getting above replacement performance out of him in 2027.

Maybe it won’t end up that Martin bounces around the diamond at all. MASN’s All Access recently spoke to Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin about Martin. You can see the video here:

Corbin’s praise for his player includes the assessment that, as far as his pro prospects go, Martin could play in second base or center field. If Martin is able to translate the “best pure hitter” praise into the professional ranks while playing at an up-the-middle position on the diamond, this pick will be exciting.

It’s not as much of a sure thing that the Orioles are going to take Martin like it was this time last year that they were going to take Adley Rutschman at #1. Even mock drafts that have still had the Orioles taking Martin have mentioned the possibility that teams might not want to deal with a Scott Boras client at the very top of the draft in this year of uncertainty where there’s only a five round draft and undrafted players are capped at a $20,000 bonus. That could turn out to just be a bunch of noise.

Another factor for the Orioles is that they will draft again at #30 with their competitive balance pick and at #39 for their pick near the top of the second round. The opportunity is there to save money with the #2 pick and go overslot for a better player with the second pick.

The Astros, you may recall, used this underslot strategy with Carlos Correa at the #1 pick in 2012. It worked out pretty well for them since Correa has proven to be the best player they could have drafted out of the top tier prospects in that draft anyway. If the Orioles under Elias go in a different direction from Martin, hopefully his judgment of who is the best player to take proves to be correct again.

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the A&M pitcher, Lacy, in case it turns out that Elias, like Fangraphs, just likes Lacy a little bit more than Martin.