Leonys Martin didn’t step onto a baseball field in the United States until May 2 of this season. Exactly four months later –– on Sept. 2 –– he was digging into the batter’s box at Fenway Park to face veteran hurler Tim Wakefield for his first major league at-bat.
Martin, who was born only three months before Wakefield was drafted in 1988, stared at the first pitch he saw, a 67-mph knuckleball that dropped over the plate for a strike. He grounded the next offering into right field for a hard-hit single. It was the first of what the Texas Rangers hope will be many big league hits for Martin.
The Rangers were initially linked to Martin less than one week after spring training ended, as various reports stated the Rangers were close to landing the Cuban outfield prospect. The club finalized the deal –– worth $15.5 million over five years –– about one month later.
After signing the deal, Martin reported to the Rangers’ minor league complex in Arizona to begin his professional career. He took batting practice (watch the video Lone Star Dugout filmed of his first state-side BP) and worked out for approximately one week before getting his first game action at extended spring training.
“It was something new –– a whole new world,” Martin said of his first day in Arizona. “I knew I had to make some adjustments. I was happy, and I was impressed. I was impressed with my teammates and with my coaches there in Arizona.”
Martin played in five extended spring games –– getting seven hits in 16 at-bats –– before earning an assignment to Double-A Frisco. It didn’t take the prospect long to find success, as he went on to post a .348/.435/.571 slash line with 15 walks and just eight strikeouts in 135 Texas League plate appearances.
Although Cuban players often struggle with the transition to life in the States, Martin has received plenty of help and support from his family. Unlike most Cuban defectors, Martin already has his father and girlfriend in the U.S.
“I have my dad and my dad brought his wife, and my girlfriend is here with me as well,” Martin said. “They’re half of me. That’s my peace of mind. My dad is the one who has always helped me toe the line with baseball, so it helps a tremendous amount to have him close.”
Martin also got support from first baseman Jose Ruiz, who played against him in Cuba. Ruiz’s first state-side season came in the Tampa Bay organization last season, and he has split this year between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock as a teammate of Martin’s.
“We were very good friends, all the way back in Cuba,” the outfielder said. “Thank goodness God got us on the same path and we’re able to share this.”
While the 23-year-old didn’t face competition in the States until this season, he played against some of the nation’s top amateur prospects during last summer’s World University Championship in Japan. There, Martin’s Cuba team took home the title with a 4-3 victory over the Americans.
Martin batted leadoff and went 1-for-3 with two walks in the championship game, going against UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole –– the top pick in this year’s MLB Draft.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Martin said. “I don’t think he’s a university-level pitcher. He is a pro pitcher, he’s a big leaguer. He has three excellent pitches. The fastball was 97-98 mph with a 90 mph slider. And the changeup was exceptional. He’s got it.”
Martin says Cole is “an exceptional pitcher” but also states that he has “seen a lot of good pitchers.” Perhaps it should have come as little surprise that Martin, who had plenty of experience at Cuba’s top level of professional baseball, was able to tear through the Double-A level with ease. But he has struggled to adjust in some areas.
“For starters, this is professional and that’s amateur,” said the prospect, comparing state-side ball to his time in Cuba. “I was a little bit more aggressive in Cuba, a little bit less control. And that’s the main difference. It was a little bit more aggressive with a little less control.”
A big part of the transition for Martin was learning to stay within himself on the base paths. Although he is regarded as an intelligent player with good baseball instincts, he certainly hasn’t been without his growing pains in making the adjustment. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound prospect stole only 10-of-18 bases successfully in Frisco. The number improved to 9-of-11 in Triple-A, but he was still learning about taking extra bases and being mindful of the base runners ahead of him.
After joining Round Rock, Martin spent some time working with Rangers’ minor league instructor Jayce Tingler. He also had a handful of tutorials with veteran Esteban German, whose base-running acumen earned him a spot on the Rangers’ ALDS roster last season.
The club also brought Martin to Arlington for a couple days in mid-July in order to give him a base-running clinic with the major league coaching staff.
“I was working with the third base coach and Ron Washington,” he said. “He’s amazing. It was a great experience. I was working on my jumps off first base while stealing second base. And I was working on defense and I took some batting practice. I’m happy.”
Because the club knew Martin would likely finish the season on the major-league roster, they felt a quick midseason clinic would help him learn along the way. It also gave Martin a chance to meet his future teammates.
“It was incredible,” he said of the experience. “It was good for me, as a young player, to have that kind of contact with the major leaguers.”
Earlier in the summer, one American League scout commented that the biggest negative in Martin’s game is that he isn’t a burner on the base paths. Still, Martin carries an all-around solid skill-set with tools that include his hitting, running, overall glove, and throwing.
The left-handed hitter showed the ability to drive the ball earlier this season in Frisco when ahead in counts. Martin is a disciplined hitter who knows the strike zone. When he fell behind in counts, he often shortened his swing and used an all-fields approach. But when ahead, he was able to unload and flash some power.
While Martin flashed his skills in Double-A, he scuffled in 40 games after the promotion to Triple-A. He posted a .263/.316/.314 slash line and appeared to be lunging at the ball far more often than earlier in the summer. Some of the struggles were certainly growing pains, and he also appeared to tire a bit. Martin had little time to prepare for the season, and he hadn’t played baseball on an everyday basis in well over a year.
At the end of the day, Martin came away satisfied with his first season in the minors.
“I think I’ve done well, thank God,” Martin said. “I’m ready. When I get into a slump, I feel mentally ready for that.”
While Martin says he hasn’t made many adjustments this season, he has learned to slow the game down and play with more control.
“The self control,” said Martin when asked what he’d learned. “There are moments in the game where I must control myself. And the language, I am still working on that. It’s mostly that, but I’m real happy. I’m doing well.
“I’ve improved my posture, my stance. I’ve changed some things in how I take an at-bat, but I haven’t changed my swing.”
Although Martin says he wasn’t thinking of a big league call-up when he played in the minors this season, he was certainly happy to get the nod in late August. In more than three weeks with the Rangers, Martin has appeared in just five games and has only three plate appearances.
The club is currently giving the Cuba native valuable experience in learning about life in the major leagues. It’s experience that should benefit him next spring, when he will surely compete for the Rangers’ opening day centerfield job.
Thanks to Bobby Galvez for translating the interview with Martin.
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