2015 Preview – Centerfield

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers
The position of center field is part speed, part arm, part power, part leader. The Rangers’ current center fielder has displayed the first three of those traits, and, going into the last year of his original contract, has the opportunity to take this step into the final one. When Jon Daniels signed the Cuban-defector in 2011 to the tune of $15.5 million with a $5 million signing bonus, much was made of the acquisition. At the time, Julio Borbon was viewed as the center fielder of the future for Texas. He was fast, had a good hit tool, knew how to field, but was never able to put it all together for a full season and constantly found himself fighting to be on the major league roster every Spring, even after a good 2010. With Leonys Martin, you had just about the same level of talent – but Martin was viewed as having the higher ceiling. Sure enough, as 2012 turned to 2013, Borbon was exposed to the waiver wire and claimed by the Cubs. That was when Martin became the official Center Fielder of the Future for Texas.
In his time with the club, we’ve seen him grow from a kid who had good baseball instincts, a cannon for an arm, unmitigated speed but occasionally took circuitous routes on fly balls, and did not always make sound throwing decisions, to a cornerstone player whose defensive efficiency has improved, understands what the game requires of him…and still has a cannon for an arm. As one of the longer tenured Rangers that will take the field on Opening Day, Martin can be one of the silent leaders in the clubhouse and will be counted on to anchor the outfield and be a general.

2014: 2014 started as Leonys Martin’s year. There was no Craig Gentry behind him to be a regular platoon partner, as Gentry had been traded in the offseason to acquire Arlington native, Michael Choice. Choice went into spring training last year as a prime candidate to be a more powerful platoon option with Martin, a lefty who struggled against left-handed pitching (.226 vs. .275 against righties). As camp broke with Choice having a monster spring, Leonys was the Opening Day center fielder with the idea that Choice would be the platoon. As the season got going, it became clearer that Choice either wasn’t ready for the major leagues yet or that he wasn’t accustomed to having irregular playing time. Martin saw more playing time as the regular center fielder, while Choice bounced to either corner spot on any given day. Through June, Choice struggled at the plate with just nine hits in the entire month, sinking his batting average to .177. He got optioned, and Martin cemented himself in the eighth spot in the batting order.

Offensively, Martin saw his average hover above .275, and while his getting on base didn’t always translate to runs, especially with the depleted roster, his presence on the base paths was always a threat to pitchers who respected his speed. Defensively, there was a slight increase in errors from 2013-2014 (5 to 8), but on the plus side, Martin’s Range Factor increased (2.64 to 3.07), meaning he was a part of more outs through the season. His assist numbers decreased as well, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the more word gets out about the arm of Martin, the less willing runners are to take a chance on the cannon. Outside of stats, the communication problems between him and right fielder Alex Rios were very visible. There were several instances where Rios and Martin collided or had obvious confusion about who was catching the ball, and whether that was because of Martin’s naturally soft voice or Rios’ penchant for miscommunication (see Darvish’s no-hitter or the devastating knee to the face of Daniel Robertson), there were some definite issues on the right side of the outfield.

All in all, Martin finished with a slash line of .274/.325/.364 and a fielding percentage of .982. He continued to grow and develop in all areas, providing a good outlook for the coming year.

2015: If Elvis Andrus is the straw that stirs the drink in the Rangers’ lineup, Leonys Martin is going to be telling us what kind of drink we’re having. Martin is far more suited to be a leadoff hitter than is Choo. While he hasn’t yet achieved the average pitches per plate appearance level that Choo has, Martin’s speed and base path presence offers a lot more for an opposing defense to think about than the aging Choo. A one-two punch of Martin and Andrus at the top of the lineup has far more potential to create havoc in the early innings, and get the table set for the powerhouses of Beltre and Fielder.

With a continued emphasis on aggressive base running, Jeff Banister will be mixing in analytics and stats to hopefully result in smarter aggressive base running, which is the kind of coaching Martin needs on the bases. The idea that Martin could build upon back-to-back 30+ stolen base seasons should bring excitement to all Ranger fans, and being able to combine that with Elvis Andrus’ restored approach at the plate should instantly create more run-scoring opportunities.

Defensively, Martin will have new corner outfielders to work with. With Choo being more comfortable in right field, one hopes that means the instincts of the 32-year old veteran will come into play with communication issues. With that in mind, it’s conceivable that just having Choo instead of Rios there could make Martin a better outfielder. Martin has proven himself to be very coachable, and with fresh eyes on him in the person of Jayce Tingler, the range and instincts should continue to grow.

It’s an important year financially for the 27-year old as well, as Martin will have a full 3-year arbitration slate ahead of him after this year. He’s owed $4.75 million this year, and that’s where the base for arbitration will start. If he puts himself ahead of the curve this year, it could earn him somewhere north of $6 million for 2016. There’s a lot to be gained in what amounts to a contract year for Leonys.

Hot Stove: With 10 people fighting for a starting job in left, whoever doesn’t end up as the primary left fielder is going to have to be able to play center field in order to backup Leonys on days off, or God forbid, if he gets injured. Among those with more extensive center field experience: Rule 5 Delino DeShields Jr, Antoan Richardson, Michael Choice, and Jared Hoying.

How has Leonys Martin shaped up for you? Do you think he’s proven worth the contract given to him in 2011? Can he be a leader on the field and in the clubhouse? Leave a comment below and discuss. Next week, we finish out the playing field and look at right field for the Rangers.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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