The Mariners centerfielder had to relive a troubling past on Tuesday but started looking ahead to the season on Wednesday
PEORIA, Ariz. — Leonys Martin is ready to move forward from a past he’ll never forget and was reminded of again in recent days.
A day after being subpoenaed to testify in federal court in Miami in the trial of his former agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, Martin finally arrived to the Mariners’ complex on Wednesday morning for his first workout with the team.
“You know it’s something that happened in the past,” he said of the trial. “I don’t want to go over it. I just want to throw it away and focus on baseball right now.”
Hernandez and Estrada have been charged with conspiracy and alien smuggling, specifically Cuban baseball players, including Martin, Jose Abreu of the White Sox and Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins.
Martin’s testimony focused on his journey from Cuba to the United States. With the help of a group of smugglers allegedly linked to Hernandez, Martin defected from his native country in 2010, riding in a speedboat to Cancun, Mexico, where he was set up to receive residency so he could sign a free agent contract with an MLB team. Martin eventually signed a five-year, $15.5 million deal with the Rangers after working out for a number of teams in Mexico. He testified that instead of waiting for a U.S. work visa, he crossed the border at Laredo, Texas, without valid paperwork because he was afraid of being kidnapped.
As part of the entire process, Martin signed contracts obligating him to pay Hernandez 5 percent of his MLB deal and 35 percent to the alleged smuggling ring that helped him escape. He admitted to paying them close to $1.5 million.
Hernandez was arrested just over a year ago on human trafficking charges. Martin knew that he would eventually have to testify.
“It gave me a little bit of stress,” he said. “This case has been out there for a little bit. It was a tough process for me and my family. I hope this gets over real soon.”
While his absence was obviously excused by the Mariners and serious in nature, it didn’t stop his teammates from teasing him upon his return. He saw the “Missing” poster that was created with his mugshot, listing many of his foibles on the field and quirky personality traits in the clubhouse.
“They made fun of me,” he said. “But I enjoyed that. It’s all part of it. That (poster) was funny.”
It didn’t take long for Martin to make it known he was back. His high-pitched voice could be heard at elevated decibel levels throughout the building while jawing with Nelson Cruz, Felix Hernandez and others. His popularity with his teammates and coaches was on display with the myriad of hugs he offered and received before the first workout.
“He’s a big part of what we do here,” manager Scott Servais said. “The personality and life he brings to the clubhouse. He’s already yelling and screaming at guys and guys are screaming back at him. Everybody is back in their comfort zone.”
In search of a center fielder that could play exceptional defense, the Mariners acquired Martin before last season in a trade with the Rangers. He didn’t disappoint from a defensive standpoint, providing a level of defense that hadn’t been seen at that position for the organization since Franklin Gutierrez was healthy in 2010. Known to be a swing-and-miss hitter with minimal discipline, Martin gave Seattle more offense than expected. He hit .247 with 17 doubles, three triples, 47 RBI and 24 stolen bases in 143 games. He also missed 15 days with a strained hamstring in June that would hinder him for the next month and a half.
He set career highs in runs scored (72), home runs (15), walks (44) and total bases (196). But he also posted a career-high in strikeouts (149).
“I want to get better,” he said. “It was good, I hit 15 homers, but that’s not part of my game. I want to do better. I want to stay focused on my part. I have to know what kind of player I am and stay in my game, get my on-base a little bit higher and try to steal 30-40 bases. Get on base, try to create rallies and score runs — that’s part of my game. I don’t go to bat thinking about hitting three-run homers. That’s not my game. I try to create situations for my team and the big boys behind me. That’s what I am going to be focused on this year.”
As part of that focus, Martin shaved 10 pounds off his frame this offseason in an effort to maintain his speed and health in his legs, specifically his hamstring. He also went to the Dominican Republic to work on his hitting with Robinson Cano in the offseason. The emphasis was to have a more controlled, less emotional approach with a shorter swing.
“I have to just swing, not be too aggressive at home plate,” he said. “Try to control it a little bit more, control the strike zone. … I’m still learning about hitting. It’s a process, but it’s coming. My swing feels a little different, I’m so happy.”
The expectations for Martin’s improvement aren’t significant. He’s on the team for defense and speed. He’ll bat ninth this season.
“He can certainly hit velocity,” Servais said. “He probably hits it as good as anyone we got. With Leonys, it comes more to controlling his emotions. Can he slow it down enough to have a good at-bat? And not get so far ahead he’s worried about the result. He’s an exciting player. I think it’s a good fit for him on this club. The defense he has around him in the outfield takes a little pressure off him as well.”
Indeed, Martin basically had to chase down everything in center field along with the gaps to his left and right. The Mariners were usually rolling out defensive liabilities in the corner outfield spots to start games. Now he’ll have solid defensive outfielders like Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger next to him.
“That’s good,” he said. “Now when you hit the ball in the air in Safeco Field, it has to get over (the wall). It’s a little bit different now.”
Martin believes he’s a little different as a player now in Year 2 with Seattle. Lost and unhappy with the Rangers, he’s come to Seattle and feels a sense of belonging.
“This is the organization that gave me a lot of confidence to be who I am and prove myself and go out there and play hard,” he said. “Last year they gave me the confidence to do it and be who I am.”