Cuban defector will be competing with Borbon, Gentry at Rangers' camp
By T.R. Sullivan
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Julio Borbon got sick on a short boat ride to Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast and his close friend Leonys Martin just laughed at him.
"He said the boat ride he took out of Cuba was 10 times worse than that," Borbon said.
That is about as much as Martin will tell anybody about his defection from Cuba late in the summer of 2010. Martin just does not talk about his former life on the island. He remains the Rangers' international man of mystery, an immensely talented outfielder with a past shrouded in secrecy, a present filled with the joy of being on the verge of achieving a life-long dream and a future ...
Well, the future is also shrouded in mystery, but the Rangers are going to find out as much as they can about Martin this spring. They're not interested in the details of his dramatic escape from Cuba, they just want to know if Martin can be the everday center fielder on a team that expects to compete for a division title and more.
"We're going to put him out there and find out everything we can about him," manager Ron Washington. "He's got talent. This kid just needs to relax and play and he'll answer every single question that needs to be answered."
Rangers' Opening Day center fielders since 1994
Gary Mathews Jr.
The Rangers' regard for Martin is the main reason why they did not pursue free-agent outfielder Michael Bourn. Others outside the organization felt the Rangers needed a center fielder. The Rangers wanted Martin to come to camp and have a real chance to compete for a job.
"He just needs the opportunity," outfielder Nelson Cruz said. "He's improved a lot over the past few years. From what I've seen, he's ready. He's not a big talker, but he gets along with everybody and he is not afraid."
Borbon and Craig Gentry are his competition. Borbon was the Opening Day center fielder in 2010-11 and has an uphill battle to re-establish himself as a Major Leaguer. The Rangers know what Gentry can do: He's an excellent defensive center fielder with tremendous speed who can hit for average -- especially against left-handers -- but not for power.
Martin might be able to do it all. He has both speed and power, his defense has improved significantly and he put up some impressive offensive numbers at Triple-A Round Rock last year.
"The improvement from two years ago to what he showed last year was like day and night," Round Rock manager Bobby Jones said. "There are still some things he has to work on, but last year he really stepped up his game. If he can make as much progress this year as he did last year, he'll be a pretty good ballplayer."
If Martin is the Rangers' Opening Day center fielder, it will come less than two years since they signed him to a five-year, $15.5 million contract following his defection from Cuba.
"It would be a great thrill," Martin said. "It would be the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of dreams about that. It would be right up there with playing in the World Series."
When the Rangers officially announced they had signed Martin on May 4, 2011, they described him as a potential impact defensive center fielder and leadoff hitter. The Rangers have seen that and more through his first two eventful years in professional baseball.
The first year was rough. Martin wasn't used to playing every single day and missed three weeks in June with a stiff back. Jones said Martin couldn't play more than three days in a row without needing a day off. He split time between Double-A Frisco and Round Rock, and the Rangers saw enough to bring him to the big leagues in September. They wanted speed off the bench for the stretch run but did not include him on the postseason roster.
Martin's second season at Round Rock was much better, as he hit .359 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .610 slugging percentage in 55 games. He was out from May 2 to June 6 with a torn ligament in his left thumb and he sat on the Rangers' bench as a reserve for six weeks from June 15 to July 30 while Mitch Moreland was on the disabled list. But he still had 231 at-bats in Round Rock and finished with 48 runs, 18 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs and 42 RBIs.
"He's really a hard worker, that's the thing that impressed me from Day 1," Borbon said. "I saw him running up and down the [outfield berm] in Round Rock, doing speed work on his own. Nobody told him to do that. I ended up joining him. He puts in the time, there's no question why he has been able to do the things that he has done.
"He's fun to play with. He brings a lot of energy to the ballpark. When things weren't going right for me, he really gave me a shoulder to lean on. I'd be 0-for or 0-for-3 and he'd tell me, 'Hey, you still got one more.' He started off great down there and he could have easily just thought of himself. That showed his character."
So did the thumb injury.
"He injured himself sliding headfirst into first base," Borbon said. "He was trying to avoid a tag. He stays in the game, goes first to third on a single and slides headfirst again. Then he won't come out of the game. He was fighting them from having to come off the field. It was amazing to see."
Martin was able to make up for the lost time by playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He played in 37 games with Licey and got 146 at-bats. Combine that with his Minor League numbers for two years, and Martin has played in 165 games, hitting .308 with 123 runs scored, 39 doubles, eight triples, 20 home runs, 103 RBIs and 37 stolen bases.
In his limited time at the Major League level, Martin is 11-for-54 with six doubles, two triples and three stolen bases.
"His defense is the best part of his game right now," Washington said. "We haven't seen enough at-bats up here to judge him, but everyone who has seen him said he can swing the bat."
Martin still needs work. The Rangers want him to be a better baserunner: He stole 10 bases but was caught nine times at Round Rock in 2012. Defensively, he covers ground and has a plus arm but is still working on running better routes and making good decisions. At the plate, he is a contact hitter but still gets himself out swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.
All of those are on Martin's agenda this spring as he works with outfield/first base coach Gary Pettis and others. The Rangers need to see him take it into the game, and they will take a long look at him. The job won't be given to him. Borbon and Gentry have already proven they can play in the Major Leagues, and the Rangers could turn to one or both of them while sending Martin back to Round Rock.
There is a job to be won here in Surprise. The Rangers want to see if Martin can win it.
"Mentally, I'm ready," Martin said. "This is a great opportunity. I'm ready. I just need to play the game."