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Newberg Report: Martin excites in Frisco

Newberg Report: Martin excites in Frisco

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Newberg Report: Martin excites in Frisco
Part 6 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers' Minor League system.

Early in 2010, there was speculation that the Rangers were interested in first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz, a Cuban defector who was imposing physically but hadn't shown much power and, at age 25, was older than Chris Davis, Justin Smoak, and Mitch Moreland and without their upside. For an organization that keys on stepping out for amateur talent on the mound and up the middle, the interest in Ruiz seemed a bit atypical. The Rays ended up signing him in June.

About that same time, the Rangers hired veteran international scout Jose Fernandez, who hails from Cuba, as part of an ongoing effort to expand the club's global scouting presence.

Neither the Ruiz pursuit nor the Fernandez hire made local headlines, but there was something bigger brewing.

For two weeks beginning in late July, Cuba's national team was playing in the FISU World University Championships in Japan, featuring a 22-year-old outfielder named Leonys Martin, who would score 14 runs in 28 plate appearances (going 9-for-20 with eight walks and only two strikeouts).

Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
No. 1 starter: Martin Perez
No. 2 starter: David Perez
No. 3 starter: Neil Ramirez
No. 4 starter: Cody Buckel
No.5 starter: Luke Jackson
Long reliever: Barret Loux
Right-on-right: Johan Yan
Left-on-left: Joseph Ortiz
7th-inn. reliever: Justin Grimm
RH setup: Roman Mendez
LH setup: Robbie Ross
Closer: Tanner Scheppers
Catcher: Jorge Alfaro
First baseman: Chris Davis
Second baseman: Luis Sardinas
Shortstop: Jurickson Profar
Third baseman: Mike Olt
Left fielder: Engel Beltre
Center fielder: Leonys Martin
Right fielder: Nomar Mazara
Designated hitter: Ronald Guzman
Backup catcher: Kellin Deglan
Utility IFer: Leury Garcia
Corner IFer: Christian Villanueva
Fourth outfielder: Jordan Akins

Sometime after the tournament, in which Cuba defeated Team USA for the title, Martin defected, establishing residency in Mexico and working out for big league organizations. The sleek left-handed hitter, a career .314 hitter over five seasons in Cuba, was ready to take his game to the United States. The recruiting process was under way, and Texas was reportedly involved.

It probably didn't hurt that Fernandez had known Martin for years.

And it probably was no coincidence that, when the Rays declined to exercise a unique four-year option on Ruiz after three dozen Minor League games, Texas swooped in and signed him over the winter.

It stands to reason that the Rangers were planning ahead for Martin's availability, and boosting their chances to land him, when they brought Fernandez and Ruiz aboard. The plan came together in early May, when Texas reached an agreement with Martin on a five-year Major League deal, reported to include a $5 million signing bonus and another $10.5 million spread out over the term of the contract.

Not everyone in the scouting community agrees on what Martin is. Most acknowledge that his running ability and arm strength grade out on the plus side but there are differences of opinion on his hit tool, leading some to question whether he'll be an impact player worthy of the investment. But Texas believes there's much more to the player than the measurables.

"Our guys saw the talent, but were really drawn by his feel for the game," said general manager Jon Daniels. "The instincts in the field and on the bases, the ability to bunt, the competitiveness, the plate discipline. Just a lot of things you look for in a winning player."

The whole package convinced Texas to commit not only significant dollars to Martin but also a spot on the 40-man roster, something the organization hadn't given to an amateur since signing Julio Borbon coming out of the 2007 draft. While Borbon was in the midst of his most consistent stretch of good baseball when he strained a hamstring muscle earlier this month, his hold on center field in Arlington has been altered. Teams don't devote $15.5 million to an insurance policy. Texas is paying Martin -- likened by some to Juan Pierre or Jacoby Ellsbury or Kenny Lofton, with a better arm -- to develop into its next center fielder and possible leadoff hitter, and the apprenticeship on the farm may not last long.

"Playing for years in the competitive Cuban pro league and on the Cuban National teams in international events at such a young age helped Leonys develop his natural talent," said Rangers director of international operations Mike Daly. "We feel the combination of that talent and all the exposure playing on a big stage are two factors that could allow him to advance quickly."

Does that mean Martin will be in Arlington this summer? Injuries have already forced the Rangers to play seven outfielders in the season's first quarter, but neither Martin nor his new team is interested in pushing things too quickly.

"I want to do everything the right way," Martin told reporters on the eve of his assignment to Double-A Frisco, where his friend Ruiz has played all spring. "I don't want to rush anything."

It's a sentiment shared by Daniels.

"Leonys will be at Frisco for a bit," the GM said in a recent Dallas Morning News chat session with Rangers fans concerned about the club's rash of outfield injuries -- and encouraged by Martin's impressive start, as he's hitting over .300 and slugging .500 for the RoughRiders without striking out in his first 26 at-bats. "There's no rush to move him right now. Let's let him get settled for a while. I wouldn't rule out seeing him in the big leagues this year, though our hope is he puts himself in a position to really compete for a job next season."

Scouting and development is a process that calls for varying degrees of patience, and as the Rangers are fond of saying about any of their prospects, "He'll tell us when he's ready."

In Martin's case, the process is one that began well before Texas even had the opportunity to sign him. The Rangers hired an international scout who had an existing relationship with him. They signed another prospect who they thought might be able to help him get acclimated to a new team, a new league, and a new culture. With the backing of ownership, they stepped up and got a deal done with Martin himself.

And now the process continues, as Martin, just a week into his Minor League career, is leading off and playing center field and producing for his first professional team, going about the business of delivering a message, whenever that might be, that he's ready for the next challenge.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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