High ceiling fan: Rangers remind Martin of potential
Moving past 'Latin style,' outfielder still learning fundamentals of MLB game
ARLINGTON -- Nelson Cruz knows Leonys Martin will be an exciting player.
He felt the need to remind the 25-year-old outfielder during the Rangers' four-game set with the Tigers last week of his potential.
"You're going to be really good, just let it come," Cruz told Martin.
Martin has played baseball almost all his life, but he's dealing with the higher expectations after making a big league Opening Day roster for the first time.
Martin grew up in Cuba playing baseball in what he described as the "Latin style." The outfielder said Cuban baseball is looser than the Majors. It's not as strict on the fundamentals as Rangers "old-school" manager Ron Washington, and it allows the players more freedom.
Martin hasn't had much time to make all the necessary adjustments. Texas signed him on May 4, 2011, after he defected from Cuba. Since then, Martin has bounced back and forth from the Minors and missed significant time because of a variety of injuries. He played in 72 Minor League games before his debut on Sept. 2, 2011, the fewest prior to a debut by any Rangers player since 1986.
"As fast as kids are getting to the big leagues, there's a lot to learn and there's a lot more that goes on than just playing the game," Washington said. "They have to get a grasp of all that."
Martin was called up three times last season -- serving mainly as a reserve -- and played 24 games. He started 6-of-19 in his first six games, but went 2-of-27 in his final 18.
"If you don't hit one day and are not playing often, that pressure piles up because you're not playing," Martin said through an interpreter. "You don't have that chance to come back and do something different."
After the departure of Josh Hamilton, Martin played winter ball to prepare himself for the opportunity of becoming an everyday player in Texas. He hit .253 and collected 19 RBIs in 37 games for Licey in the Dominican Republic. Martin said it helped build his confidence and gave him a better gauge on what he could do in the Majors heading into Spring Training.
"You can imagine that [the Dominican] Winter League is very competitive baseball," Martin said. "You come to the Majors and you prepare in the Minors; that's fine. When you play winter ball, well-known guys that have a lot of experience play there. Being a young guy, as I am, playing in the league, it's tough. Those players are tough."
Washington wanted to see Martin fundamentally sound in all areas since the spring, especially on defense, running the bases and situational hitting. Martin has the ability, and Washington has been as hard on him as he was on Elvis Andrus, who has developed into an All-Star shortstop.
"Martin is a very good baseball player and he certainly has the ceiling to get better," Washington said. "How good? I think we'll just have to wait and see."
Martin feels more comfortable this season with the increased playing time. He's splitting time with outfielder Craig Gentry in center field. Third-base coach Gary Pettis said Martin's learning how to prepare himself better this season, not just to play a Major League game, but a 162-game schedule.
"When you go out there, you have to work efficiently," Pettis said. "Don't go out there and go through the motions when you're taking your fly balls and ground balls. Get something out of it. Pretend you're playing in a game. You have to go at it not at a rushed pace, but more of an assertive one, where when the game starts, you field balls at a quicker speed than if you were just going through the motions."
There's still room for improvement. Pettis always works with Martin, who feels he has improved his defense and his baserunning this season. He's 5-of-7 on stolen-base attempts and he's had three assists in center field, but Martin's still learning not to make a "Latin style" play.
He had a blunder Wednesday against the Athletics in the fifth when he didn't stay in front of a base hit by Derek Norris, who stretched the play into a double. Washington has spoken with Martin lately about limiting the fundamental mistakes, particularly throwing to the wrong base. He thinks Martin needs to be under control in the outfield and smarter on the bases.
"There are some really good arms in the league, [Jeff] Francoeur and guys like that, but I think he has the best arm in the league," Cruz said. "Accuracy, I don't think so. He's developing and he has to learn situations, but arm-wise, he has the best arm in the league. No doubt."
Martin has a .284 batting average and a .432 slugging percentage in 95 at-bats. He's hit safely in a career-high seven straight games, but Washington doesn't think Martin is where he needs to be at the plate.
"I think he's still trying to find that," Washington said. "The thing is he's getting comfortable and getting his confidence together, and that's the key."
Pettis said Martin has the tools to be a possible All-Star one day, but it's up to the outfielder and how he handles his talent. Martin is aware of this possibility, knowing he'll have to work hard to become the MLB player he thinks he can be.
"I feel like I can give a lot more than I am right now," Martin said. "I feel comfortable right now, but that's what makes me want to work harder and do better. It's going to help me really show what I can do."
Master Tesfatsion is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.