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Leonys Martin's Long Ride to Center

Leonys Martin: Catch him in Frisco while you can.
Newscom

He'll be here before you know it. Sooner than we all expected.

He's got the above-average arm in the outfield. The plus-speed on the base paths. Immeasurable instincts. That sweet lefty swing. Bat resting anxiously on his shoulder, ready to spray the ball, with power, to all parts of any field. And his journey to the Texas Rangers has been, to say the least, an interesting one lathered in surprising twists and unpredictable turns.

Oh yeah, and Josh Hamilton will soon be back playing in Arlington, too.

This teasing tale, though, is about Leonys Martin, the Rangers' center fielder of the not-so-distant future.

You've missed him. Yearned for him. Yet chances are—unless you were at Frisco's Dr Pepper Ballpark last week—you've never even seen him play.

While the Rangers languish around .500 after a 9-1 start that feels like 100 injuries ago, the Cuban cavalry is coming. Martin is in the middle of his American debut, a pit stop in Frisco for the AA Rough Riders. After the inevitable cup of stronger coffee in AAA Round Rock in a month or so, his ultimate destination is patrolling the vastness of center field at Rangers Ballpark.

Make no mistake, Martin has the tools to be the best center fielder in Rangers' history: parts Mickey Rivers and Juan Beniquez and Darryl Hamilton and Tom Goodwin and George Wright. The Rangers can publicly downplay their giddiness, but a five-year, $15 million contract, including a $5 million signing bonus, to a guy with no Major League experience, signed in the middle of May? They tipped their hand when they picked up the pen. (And yes, like you, I've wondered where these financial resources were when Cliff Lee walked last December.)

"We're not looking for a savior," GM Jon Daniels said during Martin's introductory conference call last week. "We're not expecting him to come up and help us on the big club this year. But on the other hand, considering his skill set and what we expect he can do, I wouldn't rule anything out."

Translation: Julio Borbon, you're on notice.

Since a stirring start that seemed to pick up where the World Series left off, the defending American League champions have struggled. After MVP Hamilton made the dumb, daring dash for home on a short pop-up in Detroit on April 12—a play that left him with a broken arm—the Rangers went 9-17. All-Star closer Neftali Feliz landed on the disabled list, as did set-up man Darren O'Day. No one except Michael Young hit. Elvis Andrus turned routine plays into lazy errors. And out in center, Borbon continued to mesmerize with mediocrity.

Playing a long stretch without their best hitter (Hamilton) and best pitcher (Feliz), no one within the organization is panicking. But more troubling, after a 10-game hitting streak was snapped last Saturday, Borbon was placed on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, meaning Texas' regular outfield of Hamilton (arm), right fielder Nelson Cruz (thigh) and Borbon were all simultaneously shelved.

Borbon had just started to hit; manager Ron Washington was even experimenting with batting him lead-off. But his defense—dating back to spring training—has been spotty all season. Misjudging fly balls. Throwing to the wrong base. Running into Cruz. Defensively, the guy has mysteriously regressed.

Meanwhile, as you drooled for months over the arrival of In-N-Out burger, the Rangers waited months for Martin to become unofficially available.

At his press conference, and after his debut in Frisco last week, neither the Rangers nor their prized prospect were willing to divulge the details of how a Cuban became a Ranger. Despite the trade embargo with Cuba, the American government makes room for Cuban exiles, especially when they can hit like Martin or pitch like Aroldis Chapman, the defected Cuban pitcher who now throws 105-mph fastballs for the Cincinnati Reds.

The players' motivation? Freedom. Oh, and money: Most Major Leaguers make more on their daily per diems than the best players in Cuba do annually. That's why Mets' shortstop Rey Ordonez defected from the Cuban National Team tour in '93 by jumping into an idling Cadillac outside a dorm in Buffalo. Yuniesky Betancout left the communist island in a 28-foot speedboat bound for the Florida Keys in the middle of the night. And Chapman, considered Cuba's best pitching prospect since Livan Hernandez and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, walked out of his team's hotel during a tournament in the Netherlands two summers ago and signed a $30 million deal with the Reds, the only contract for a Cuban more lucrative than Martin's.

The Rangers have enjoyed Cuban players before, notably sluggers Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco. But none stealthily slipped into the night like Martin, who left his National Team in Japan while playing in the World University Championships last July. The Rangers scouted him at the World Baseball Classic in 2009, and scout Jose Fernandez helped with clandestine communications between team and player.

In Cuba, defected players are quickly forgotten—at least by the state-controlled press, which never dares mention the players' names, lest Fidel be scanning the box scores. But the 23-year-old Martin's decision—and transition—should be easier. His father and girlfriend moved to Texas in advance of his arrival.

"That was a big step for me," Martin said through an interpreter. "I'm happy. It will keep me from worrying about things, having them here. My father has always been somebody I looked up to and somebody who kept me on the right path in my career."

After hitting .326 with 17 stolen bases in Cuba's top league last year, Martin joined the Rangers in April and batted .438 in five extended spring training games in Arizona. In his debut last Thursday night in Frisco, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound outfielder didn't disappoint. Leading off for the Rough Riders, he spanked a drive off the center-field wall for a stand-up double. After a single and a bounce out in his next two at-bats, he scorched a ball to left field that was harder than anything Borbon has hit this season. The liner was caught on the warning track, but his 8th-inning double inside the first-base bag wasn't.

Two nights later—wearing a pink jersey as Frisco paid tribute to Mary Kay—Martin hit his first American homer and added another runs-scoring hit in a Frisco blowout win.

"Today is an unforgettable moment for myself," he said. "This is something I've always dreamed of, which is to play at the highest level in the world. I want to prove to the people that believe in me that I am capable of making it to the big leagues."

In Martin's first 14 Frisco at-bats, he produced five hits, a homer and six RBI. In 89 at-bats for the Rangers, Borbon managed just 11 RBI. Daniels insists Borbon, the Rangers' first-round draft choice in '07, is the center fielder. For now.

There was a time when Rangers fans figured we'd end up with a Cuban in our owner's suite.

Now we can't wait until we have one in our outfield.

In Cuba, the state-controlled press never dares mention the defected players' names, lest Fidel be scanning the box scores.


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