Patrick Reusse
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FORT MYERS, FLA. – Austin Martin had speed that would have intrigued football coaches looking for a wide receiver, and he did play "some hoops" into his early high school years, yet he was destined to be a ballplayer shortly after starting to walk.

"My parents have told me that when I was tiny, maybe 2, or less, I would find something to toss in the air and swing at it with a stick," Martin said. "And before I was 4, I was kicked out of beginners T-ball and told not to come back."

Hitting the ball too hard? "That must have been the reason," he said.

Martin grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. His parents were not together, and Austin moved back and forth.

"We moved about 10 times in four, five years," Martin said. "Pretty much the same neighborhood, though. I had mostly the same friends."

The baseball field where Martin and friends would often gather had an official name, but it was "Jax Heights Park" to the young ballplayers.

A few in the group wound up playing college baseball — ranging from JUCOs to major programs.

J.C. Flowers was a year older than Martin and wound up as a two-way player, pitching and hitting, at Florida State. He was drafted in the fourth round by Pittsburgh in 2019 as a pitcher. He made it through the Rule 5 draft in December and is on the Pirates' Class AAA roster for this spring.

Not too shabby for the Jacksonville alum, but then along came Martin — three years at Vanderbilt, including Vandy's second College World Series title in 2019.

He went to Vanderbilt as an outfielder, wound up in the infield and finished a sophomore season at .392, 10 home runs, 18 stolen bases and an OPS of 1.167. Two of those home runs came in Vandy's opening game of the CWS vs. Louisville.

The raves for Martin as a Commodore included frequent ones from Vandy's coaching legend, Tim Corbin. The competitive spirit was limitless, Corbin said, and Martin "could play anywhere on the field."

Which brings us to Twins spring training 2024, and the expectation that a test is forthcoming on whether one of those positions is center field — played "at the major league level," as our old pal Bert Blyleven used to say.

The 2020 college baseball season was shut down in mid-March, as were nearly all North American sports, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Major League Baseball held a draft of only five rounds on June 10-11, six weeks before the actual playing of a 60-game season would start.

Martin went fifth overall to the Toronto Blue Jays. "That was impressive," I said in a conversation with him last week.

Martin shrugged and said: "Some draft watchers were saying that I would go first. But, yes, that was good."

He signed with the Blue Jays a month after the draft for a $7 million bonus that was $800,000 over the slot. The only baseball to be played that first pro season was at Toronto's alternate-site camp in Buffalo, N.Y.

What he did do a few months after the draft was sell the 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse he had been driving since 2016 to a dealer for $600.

"I'm not much of a car guy," he said. "I was going to get a [Dodge] Challenger or something, but my agent said, 'Treat yourself.' So, I'm driving a Range Rover."

Another shrug. This didn't seem like indifference, though — just the idea the early fruits of a baseball career have been fine, but getting to the big leagues and then making an impact are what matter as Martin turns 25 next month.

Martin was four months into his first real season in the Toronto organization when the Blue Jays surrendered him and pitcher Simeon Woods Richardson to the Twins for pitcher Jose Berrios on July 30, 2021.

The 2022 season was not impressive at the plate. Outsiders have suggested this was due partially to a swing adjustment recommended by the Twins to add more power.

Martin did not seize that excuse last week. "They were trying to make me better," he said. "It didn't work for me. I'll hit a few homers. I'll never hit 40."

The 2023 season included dealing with an elbow injury that showed up in spring training. He made it to St. Paul for 59 games in midsummer and gained a fan in Saints manager Toby Gardenhire.

"First, he can really run," Gardenhire said. "He'll get a walk, steal a base, hit line drives and, if you throw him a juicy pitch, he can whack it.

"We had him playing at second base for a while, and I was surprised how good he was there. But center field, that's where he played most of the time. He covers the gaps with that speed, and the more he plays there, the better he's going to get."

Michael A. Taylor isn't here to supplant Byron Buxton's center fielding in high style as in 2023. Buxton's going to give it a go again out there, and if that long shot actually works, then Willi Castro can survive there twice a week.

But, if Buxton's skeleton does him in again and a full-time center fielder is needed … well, everyone's going to be watching Austin Martin this spring, looking for an Option B to B. Buxton.