How he got here remains a guarded secret.The important part of the Leonys Martin story is that hes here now, seemingly proving the scouts correct, affirming that his life-changing gamble was worth it.All we really know about Martins exodus from his native Cuba is that the outfielder defected in 2010 during the World University Baseball Championship in Taiwan. His journey to baseball freedom took him, he has said, to Japan and then to a difficult limbo in Mexico.The Texas Rangers outbid the Red Sox and Blue Jays and signed him in 2011 to a five-year contract worth $15.5 million.But he was just 23 years old and as green as the amateur baseball fields back in his hometown of Villa Clara.When he came here, he was almost like a high school kid, Rangers manager Ron Washington said. He had to learn the speed of the game. He had to learn when to be reckless and when not to be reckless.I think Gary [Pettis] has done a grand job of slowing him down and giving him an opportunity to use the abilities he has.Cuban baseball isnt reckless. It is, though how shall I put this diplomatically? as fiery and colorful as the tabasco-red uniforms that clothe the national team. When an opposing hitter strikes out against Cuba, the around-the-horn has been known to extend to every fielder before the ball gets back to the pitcher.Martin was always the runt, the youngest player on the national team. He was the extra outfielder. Young and green.His former teammate pitcher Aroldis Chapman, you could argue, is still adjusting to the U.S. major leagues.In Martins case, the Rangers feel his first season just wore him down. From Florida to Texas to the Arizona rookie league to Frisco and finally to Round Rock.In 40 games for the Triple A Express, Martin batted .263 with no home runs.Some fans of the Express wrote, Hes nothing special.One year later, before he missed two months after having surgery on his thumb, Martin was back in Round Rock, batting .359.Last year I think he began to experience what it was like to go through a whole season before he got hurt, Washington said.When Martin arrived for spring training this year, he knew the prize that was there for the taking.Hes doing well, Washington said last week. Hes doing everything. Hes running the bases, hes hitting, hes playing good defense, hes aware of the situations out there.Washington hasnt named his starting center fielder yet, but the job appears to be Martins to lose.He already appears to grasp new hitting coach Dave Magadans patient approach. His spring at-bats have mostly produced line drives. He has been playing what the coaches call a major league center field.Leonys came into spring training knowing he had an opportunity to be at the big league level and play this year, Washington said. He looks a little stronger, but I think what youre seeing, more than anything else, he knows theres an opportunity here for him.Hes out there relaxed now. Hes been around us for three years. He knows what we expect. Hes beginning to be able to take teaching and apply it.And Martin is far from a finished product, Washington said.Right now hes a line-drive type hitter, but he does have pop in his bat and I think he can mature into that, the manager said. But in this first year, hell be in what I call survival mode, just trying to make sure hes doing enough to be there and be a good big league player.Martins journey, in a lot of ways, has just begun.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton