The Other Top Prospect
Texas Rangers' $15 million gamble on Cuban defector Leonys Martin should pay off
If you were talking about young Texas Rangers prospects before spring training began, you were talking about infielder Jurickson Profar, considered the game’s top prospect. But his lukewarm spring makes it uncertain if he’ll make the opening-day roster.
The same cannot be said for Leonys Martin, the young outfielder who is giving manager Ron Washington every reason to make him the opening-day center fielder. There wasn’t a lot of chatter about Martin entering camp, but he’s hitting well over .300 and showing enough range in center field to make you feel a little better about the fact that the Rangers didn’t pursue a center fielder this offseason to replace Josh Hamilton.
Now Martin won’t make you forget about Hamilton’s power, but his story is just as unique.
Outfield Leonys Martin won’t make you forget about Josh Hamilton’s power, but his story is just as unique.
Martin was born in Cuba. He grew up and played baseball for his dad. Before he was 18, he turned professional and reportedly earned $40 a week. Martin traveled the world on Cuba’s dime, playing in junior baseball events and even the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
But while in Taiwan for the 2010 World University Baseball Classic, Martin disappeared. He surfaced in Tokyo, then Mexico, as he pulled his own Cold War-era coup and defected from Cuba.
Whether tired of the pay or simply looking for a bigger challenge, Martin became a free agent and signed with Texas for five years and $15.5 million. That included a $5 million signing bonus. I did the math. It would have taken Martin a little less than 2,500 years to make $5 million in Cuba.
When you think about it, Martin’s contract was a significant investment for the Rangers, who have invested heavily in the bidding war that is Latin American baseball. Martin’s singing bonus dwarfed that of Profar, who at age 16 only cost the Rangers $1.55 million in bonus money.
The rules are different there. There is no amateur draft. It’s the Wild West and the biggest roll of cash usually wins.
The Rangers clothed Martin in a large contract, put him on their 40-man roster immediately and sent him to the minor leagues to work on hitting and baserunning. By last season, his second in the organization, he was hitting better than .300 in Triple A Round Rock. Martin has had a couple of “cups of coffee” with the big club, just 32 games in about two seasons.
Martin may exist in a platoon with Craig Gentry this season (and, to be fair, Gentry had a great season in 2012 and deserves a shot at playing time), but it is clear Martin is the future at the position.
He’s more of the prototypical center fielder. He’s patient at the plate, he hits line drives and he runs the bases well. His speed will come in handy in the expansive center field at Rangers Ballpark, where the odd corners and varying distances require speed and quick thinking.
Hamilton had both, but he has much more power than Martin. He wasn’t the prototypical center fielder, but Hamilton was so freakishly athletic he could pull it off.
Martin won’t hit many home runs. But he can sit at the bottom of the order and become a second leadoff hitter of sorts for players like Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre when they come back around in the order.
Perhaps, one day, he can finally alleviate Kinsler of his leadoff duties and provide the Rangers with a speedy 1-2 punch up top with Andrus.
Martin still has to make the team first, but unless his pesky hamstring persists, he’ll be in Houston and Arlington that first week in April doing something that most of us thought Profar would be doing to start this season – playing in the bigs.