Even with the midmorning sun and a cloudless sky making reads for others difficult, Leonys Martin saw the ball off the bat immediately as it rocketed to right-center.
He was in motion in an instant — a graceful lope that churned up distance along the outfield grass. Martin wasn’t even running at full speed. It didn’t matter. The ball that seemed destined to find the outfield wall or the warning track instead found the inside of his glove in an easy one-handed movement while never breaking stride. He then stopped, whirled and fired the ball back toward the infield, flashing the ooh-inducing arm strength that scouts have raved about.
Sure it was a meaningless spring workout, but it was also a brief flash of the talent that the soon to be 28-year-old possesses and a reminder of why the Mariners acquired him in the offseason to be their everyday center fielder.
In 95 games with Texas in 2015, Martin hit only .219 with an on-base percentage of .264. He also broke a bone in his hand and was left off Texas’ postseason roster.
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Martin arrived in Arizona on Saturday night, a few days ahead of the official report date, and was in the Mariners’ clubhouse early Sunday morning. He met with manager Scott Servais and then joined several position players already in camp for that workout.
“I’m excited and say thank you to the Seattle organization to give me the opportunity to be part of the new team,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and I know it’s going to be a great year.”
In the quest to bring better defense and more athleticism to the roster, new general manager Jerry Dipoto made finding an everyday center fielder that fit those attributes a priority. Instead of committing multiple years to Denard Span or losing his 2016 first-round draft pick by signing Dexter Fowler, Dipoto acquired Martin from the Texas Rangers early in the offseason. Seattle gave up reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones and versatile prospect Patrick Kivlehan for Martin and reliever Anthony Bass, who later opted to play in Japan.
“My agent called me like 10 minutes before Jerry called me,” Martin said. “I was surprised to get traded that quick and I didn’t expect to get traded to Seattle. You know same division with the Rangers, not many cases where people get traded in the same division. I expected to get traded to Seattle in the second half of last year by the trade deadline. But it didn’t happen.”
While speculation of Martin being traded to the Mariners during last season never surfaced in social media, the reasoning behind such a deal is understandable in hindsight.
Martin had a miserable 2015 season. He played his way out of his starting center field job by June — the reason he was available on the trade market — and into a minor-league demotion in early August by hitting .219 with 12 doubles, five homers and 25 RBI in 95 games, including a career-low .264 on-base percentage that featured 69 strikeouts and just 16 walks.
I don’t want to make excuses. It was a bad year.
It got worse.
A week into his stint with Class AAA Round Rock, Martin suffered a fractured hamate bone in his right hand on a swing Aug. 13. He had surgery to remove the bone Aug. 26.
Martin made it back to the big leagues for the last game of the regular season. The Rangers left him off the postseason roster and wanted him to attend the instructional league in Arizona instead. Frustrated with the situation, Martin refused to report to the assignment.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” he said. “It was a bad year.”
The refusal to go to Arizona combined with the down offensive numbers cemented Martin’s availability status.
“He did not have a good year last year,” Servais said. “He had a little injury issue and then he kind of lost his spot. It happens in this game. It’s why we were able to acquire him. If not, we wouldn’t have been able to get him. He’s another guy, with how we want to build our team, that’s a key acquisition for us.”
To prepare for a new season with a new team, Martin worked out in Miami with coaches in an effort to improve his hitting and then went to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball.
“I went to play in winter league for a little bit to reset my mind,” he said.
In nine games, Martin hit .297 (11 for 37) with a .372 on-base percentage, including three doubles, two homers and five walks for Del Licey. There weren’t changes to his stance or swing.
“Just to change the approach at home plate, trying to see the ball, see pitchers and everything,” he said. “When I went to play in the Dominican, I could feel the difference.”
As I explained to him: ‘Where you’re going to fit in our lineup, get on base. I don’t care how you do it.’
Scott Servais, Mariners manager
It was made clear to Martin that the Mariners’ new hitting philosophy, and particularly for him, is about getting on base.
“When we first acquired Leonys, I talked to him,” Servais said. “I told him it’s not about the batting average. As I explained to him: ‘Where you’re going to fit in our lineup, get on base. I don’t care how you do it. Whether it’s bunting, getting hit by a pitch, walking, getting more hits, I don’t care. Just get on base so the guys in the middle of our lineup have somebody out there when they come up.’”
Martin’s locker in the clubhouse is near the locker of close friend and former Rangers’ teammate Nelson Cruz. That wasn’t by accident.
“I’ve had a relationship with Nellie since five or six years ago,” Martin said. “He was like my dad in my first year in Texas. That relationship is still going. It’s awesome. Every day is better. They say he’s a better person than a player. I’ve heard it said many times. I don’t know how to explain it, but he means a lot for me to be here. He’s going to be like my dad in baseball.”
Martin’s name has been in the news the past few days and it wasn’t for his talents on the field. His former agent, Bart Hernandez, who helped him escape from Cuba, was indicted on human trafficking charges. The U.S. government is charging Hernandez for conspiring with smugglers to bring Martin to the United States in 2010.
In an effort to avoid insistent questions about the situation, Martin issued this statement through his agency, MDR Sports:
“I am obviously aware that Bart Hernandez was arrested yesterday by the United States government. The decision to arrest him was made by the government, not by me, and any questions about why he was arrested should be directed to the prosecutor in Florida.
“Out of respect for the judicial process, I will have no further comment on this matter, and I ask that the media respect my privacy and the privacy of my family. My total focus is on doing everything in my ability to contribute to a successful season for the Seattle Mariners.”
Martin downplayed his part in the situation or it’s effect on him, saying it won’t be a distraction.
“No, that wasn’t my decision,” he said. “All I got on my mind is to play baseball. That’s all I’m about is baseball. I’ve got no comment on it. People asked me the same questions before, but just play baseball. That’s what I’m about.”