Leonys Martin drifted easily toward a fly ball as it shot from the machine toward center field on one of the Mariners’ practice fields, made the catch and snapped a strong throw back to coach Chris Prieto.
Martin is smiling a lot these days. The November trade that brought him to the Mariners provided a new lease on his career after he lost his starting job in Texas during a disappointing (and injury-interrupted) season.
“I’m so happy, man,” Martin said – and keeps saying. “I’m thankful for the Seattle organization to allow me to be part of the team, and I’m excited for the new season. I know it’s going to be a great year for us.”
The next step in that year comes Wednesday when the Mariners open their 33-game Cactus League schedule against Peoria Sports Complex co-tenant San Diego at 12:10 p.m. Pacific time at Peoria Stadium.
Martin, 27, came to the Mariners with pitcher Anthony Bass in a Nov. 16 trade that sent reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones and utilityman Pat Kivlehan to the Rangers.
Manager Scott Servais was the director of player development at Texas when the Rangers shelled out $15.5 million over five years to sign Martin in 2011 after he defected from Cuba.
Martin spent much of 2011 and 2012 in the minors before becoming the Rangers’ starting center fielder in 2013. He batted .268 with a .319 on-base percentage over the next two seasons while also stealing 67 bases.
“He did not have a good year last year,” Servais said. “He had a little injury issue, and he lost his spot. It happens in this game. That’s why we were able to acquire him.
“For how we wanted to build our team, he’s a key acquisition for us. Going for athleticism and defense, especially in the outfield, he rates at the top of the list on all of the defensive metrics. And he can really throw.”
Last year is something that Martin would just as soon forget.
He batted .198 over his first 31 games before recovering to a .347 clip over 23 games. But another extended slump, .141 over 41 games, knocked him out of the lineup and into the minors.
While on a remedial tour at Triple-A Round Rock, Martin suffered broken hamate bone in his right hand and spent the rest of the season on the disabled list.
When he declined Texas’ request to report in September to the Instructional League, while simultaneously coming up for salary arbitration, it became a matter of if, not when, he would be traded in the offseason.
“I don’t want to make any excuses,” Martin said. “It was a bad year. I was expecting to get traded but not that quick (after the season) — and I didn’t expect to get traded to Seattle.
“They’re in the same division as the Rangers. Not many times do players get traded (to teams) in the same division.”
Make no mistake, though. A trade to the Mariners is exactly what Martin wanted.
“I love it, man,” he said. “I love Safeco Field. I said, ‘Thank you, God,’ that this is going to be my home ballpark. The fans. The ballpark. The clubhouse. The city. I love Seattle. The city is beautiful.”
The trade also reunited Martin with his former teammate, close friend and mentor Nelson Cruz. The two played alongside one another for parts of three years in Texas.
“He was like my dad for my first year in Texas,” Martin said. “The relationship is awesome, and every day is better. He’s a better person than a player. It means a lot for me to be here with Nellie.”
Cruz, 35, winced before laughing at the characterization.
“I don’t think I’m old enough to be his father,” he said. “When he came up with the Rangers, we got along pretty good. We’d get together and work out together. He was a son, I guess… a younger brother. That looks better.”
But Cruz contends the Mariners are catching, in Martin, a player not only primed to rebound from a disappointing year but also poised to blossom into an impact contributor in all aspects.
“I don’t think he’s (played to the level) that he’s supposed to be,” Cruz said. “Maybe this year, we can get the best of his potential. He can hit homers, and he can rob homers. He can throw you out. He can steal bases.
“It’s always exciting when he’s on base. He can do whatever he wants on the field.”
Martin showed signs of a potential turnaround by compiling a .381 on-base percentage in winter ball after joining Licey for its postseason run in the Dominican League. His 15 walks in 23 games tied for the league lead.
“I like what he did in winter ball,” Servais said. “He did a better job of getting on base. He did a better job against left-handed pitching. Again…it’s winter ball. We have to keep things in perspective there. But he’s in a good spot.”
Martin couldn’t agree more.
“If your mind is happy,” he said, “everything is going to be good.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners