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Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are the high-profile examples currently swinging it in the middle of the big-league lineup, but the real rewards of the internal focus could be on the horizon.
Orelvis Martinez, a 19-year-old infielder with some of the most exciting bat speed and exit velocities in the system, heads up that wave.
He may not be the first to arrive, but Martinez’s potential upside is star level if everything clicks.
Handed the second-largest international amateur bonus in club history behind the $3.9 million given to Vladdy Jr. in 2015, the $3.5 million used to get Martinez inked during the 2018 July 2 signing period — he got the biggest signing bonus in the entire class — is already looking like a pretty good investment at this early stage of his development.
Now 19, Martinez is already a top 100 prospect in some national circles despite not even appearing in full-season ball yet, and he’s No. 4 overall on our top 50 Blue Jays prospects list heading into what could be a breakout 2021 campaign.
After a 2020 year of developing in the shadows with no minor-league season, Blue Jays’ vice president of international scouting Andrew Tinnish is seeing the same things that drew him to Martinez as a young teenager in the first place.
The calling card is a loud bat, one that is already getting tagged with the cliché line of the baseball making a different sound coming off his bat, an assessment that was always attached to Guerrero Jr., too.
“It’s very loose, sort of quick-twitch movements in the batter’s box,” Tinnish said after seeing Martinez in the cage during big-league camp recently. “It’s a loose swing and he’s really starting to come into some power. It’s a different sound off his bat. It really is.
“You’re seeing some balls that are, you know, they’re hit really far in batting practice.”
Presented with his first opportunity to get into a Grapefruit League game on Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies, Martinez lined a single the opposite way off lefty Damon Jones, a 26-year-old arm with Triple-A experience on his resume.
As a teenager this spring, Martinez has impressed with his baseball maturity, even if his baby face gives away his age.
“Just the way he’s working on things and going about his business, it’s a very sort of calm and professional approach, with some legitimate explosiveness to his game,” Tinnish said.
A little early advice from Guerrero may have helped.
Sitting down for a Zoom chat that he called his first-ever interview, Martinez, via team translator Tito Lebron, relayed some simple instructions from Vladdy.
“Vladimir, first thing he told me is to respect everyone here and make sure to be on time for everything,” Martinez said.
“They’ve been great to me. Some of the guys talk to me and tell me what I should do to get better, things to do. It feels good being here in camp pretty much at the same level as them for now.”
Timing up a fastball isn’t going to be a problem.
When Martinez debuted in the now-erased Gulf Coast League in the summer of 2019 as a 17-year-old, about two-and-a-half years below the average age, he was already putting up some of the most impressive exit velocities in the circuit, according to those familiar with the data.
With impressive bat speed, barrel control and torque in his swing, Martinez smiles when asked if he’s always knocked seams off baseballs.
“Since I was a young kid,” Martinez said. “I mean, I knew I hit the ball hard and all the people around me, the people I played against, they all noticed that since I was young.”
A favourite saying of scouts is “hitters hit” and Martinez fits nicely into that bucket.
From the first time the Blue Jays laid eyes on him in the summer of 2016 as a 14-year-old in the Santo Domingo area of the Dominican Republic to now, Martinez has always showed an innate ability to simply hit.
But Martinez wants to make sure his profile with the bat is known as a well-rounded one.
It’s not just power and if the .278/.352/.549 slash line with seven homers in 163 plate appearances in the GCL in 2019 isn’t enough evidence of that, the 8.6 per cent walk rate and 17.8 per cent K rate in his age-17 season sure are.
There are moving parts to the swing that might be tested when he reaches the upper minors eventually, but he checks all three of the important boxes: power, hit tool, plate discipline.
“I can be aggressive when I want, I can be a good contact hitter if I want,” Martinez said. “I’ve got some pop, so if I feel like I want to hit it hard or if I want to go the other way, I can go the other way. That’s the way I describe myself. I don’t want to describe myself as just a power guy or an aggressive guy.”
In the D.R., he was a teammate of the Wander Franco, currently the hands down top prospect in baseball and a likely problem for teams facing the Tampa Bay Rays for years to come.
While Franco is a few months older and part of the 2017 J2 class, the two stay in touch in the off-season.
“I feel great for him,” Martinez said. “We’ve been together since we were kids pretty much. I saw him growing up working very hard and now to see him as the No. 1 prospect, it just feels awesome.”
Given the pedigree and the early production, it’s not going out on much of a limb to say Martinez could find himself as a top 20 or so prospect in baseball in the next couple of years if things go as expected.
With his full season debut on the horizon this year if the minor leagues ever get going, Martinez is on just about every watch list out there.
Being exposed to advanced pitching as well as major league coaching last September when he got the call to go to the team’s alternate site in Rochester for some seasoning has helped ease the transition to big-league camp in Dunedin this spring.
“I really felt very comfortable,” Martinez said. “As soon as they gave me the news that I was going to Rochester, I just prepared my mind for that and when I got there I was really comfortable.”
After swinging and missing at the first nine pitches he saw, striking out four times in four at-bats, Martinez started to make some contact on his second day.
By his third day in Rochester, he had crushed his first home run.
You’ll have to search high and low for someone who doesn’t believe in the bat and you still may never find that person.
Like a lot of young prospects, the defensive home for the natural shortstop who grew up emulating José Reyes for his “flash” and “flow” is still to be determined.
This year in camp, Martinez has been working at both middle infield spots, as well as third base, a position he played 11 games at in 2019 and the one that most believe is the best long-term fit.
“It feels good because I want to take advantage of that opportunity that they’re giving me to learn every position, not just shortstop,” Martinez said. “I’m taking it very seriously. When I play third, I focus on third and same thing with second and short. When it gets to the time, I will be able to play any base.
“I need to get better on my footwork, get to the ball quicker. (Infield coach) Luis (Rivera) has been great to me. We’ve sat down and talked a little bit and he’s been checking me out every time he has a chance he jumps to the field where I’m taking ground balls. He’s been in communication with me a lot.”
Even though it’s unlikely he’s a shortstop in the majors, he’s far from a bat-only prospect. The tools are there for Martinez to be an asset with the glove, as well.
“He moves pretty easy,” Tinnish said. “We noticed that defensively, he can kind of flip the ball across the diamond. He’s got loose actions and just the ability to kind of, whether he’s at short or third, to flip the ball across to first base and make it look really easy.
“That’s part of what drew us to him when we initially signed him. The best players in this game make it look easy, right? And you can kind of see those sort of skills developing, and that skill-set is there with him.”