ARLINGTON, TEXAS (AP) - The most difficult thing for Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin was having to leave home for the chance to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues.
Less than a year after defecting from Cuba, Martin is scheduled to make his U.S. professional debut Thursday with the Texas Rangers‘ Double-A team in Frisco. Some believe the speedy center fielder could be in the majors before the end of this season.
“Today is an unforgettable moment for myself,” Martin said Wednesday through an interpreter. “The idea was to get to the highest level of baseball and I’m very proud of being in this organization and having my dream come true. … I’m here now and I’m very thankful to be here.”
Martin was introduced by the Rangers before their game against Oakland, a week after the completion of a $15.5 million, five-year contract with the 23-year-old outfielder. He spent the last week at the team’s extended spring training in Surprise, Ariz., where he played in a few games, took live batting practice and did other work.
“He did everything our guys expected,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “The biggest thing going out there is he just hadn’t seen a lot of live pitching recently, so I think what we expected is there could be some rust from that standpoint. To his credit, he did really well. … We’re ready him to give him the next challenge to get his career started.”
Martin is expected to be the leadoff hitter and primarily play center field in Frisco.
“The language is definitely the most difficult (thing), but it’s just a matter of wanting to learn and I really want to learn English,” Martin said. “The baseball part of it is just to continue to play the way I play. … I’m going to give 100 percent as I have all the time and I’m proud of being a Cuban athlete.”
Martin defected after playing for Cuba’s national team in Japan at the FISU World University Championships last July and August. He hit .450 (9 for 20) with two doubles, 14 runs and eight walks in that tournament, and had been a part-time player for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
In 82 games last season for Villa Clara in the Cuban League, Martin hit .326 with 23 doubles, 10 home runs and 48 RBIs. He hit .314 over the past five seasons.
His contract with the Rangers is the second-largest for a Cuban defector, including a $5 million signing bonus with salaries of $500,000 this year, $1.25 million in 2012, $2.25 million in 2013, $2.75 million in 2014 and $3.75 million in 2015. Hard-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman got a $30.25 million, six-year deal from Cincinnati in January 2010.
“We look at Leonys as a piece of the puzzle in a big picture,” Daniels said. “We’re not looking for a savior. We’re just looking for one more guy that as he comes up through the system can compete for a job and hopefully give (manager Ron Washington) a piece to play with. We look at him as a winning player.”
While some expect a quick progression through the Rangers system for Martin, Daniels said the team would wait to see how he adjusts to being in America and how he plays at Double-A before determining the next step. Daniels offered no timetable.
“It’s going to prevent me from worrying about things, having them here,” Martin said. “My father has always been somebody I’ve looked up to and has always kept me on the right path in my career and life.”