The plan all along for Julio Pablo Martinez, assuming all went well during his first taste of organized baseball in the United States, called for him to finish 2018 in the Arizona Fall League.
When the Texas Rangers assigned the Cuban to their short-season Class A team in Spokane, Wash., they did so to get him acclimated to life in the U.S. and in the minor leagues.
The baseball would need some getting used to, too, as the game is more structured and played at a faster pace than in the Serie Nacional. But the rebuilding Rangers, shy on advanced minor-league talent, wanted to see how Martinez would fare against some of the best prospects in the game.
The toolsy center fielder, who signed in April for $2.8 million as Plan B to Shohei Ohtani, is going to be on the move in 2019.
That’s fine by Martinez, who told the media during his introductory teleconference that he was aiming to be in the major leagues in three seasons. He has two more to go.
“The goal has not changed,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I’m not one to go back on my word. Two more years. Next year I am going to come better prepared and ready to take the next step and the next challenge in my career.”
The Rangers are going to give it to him after he played 60 games with Spokane. He batted .266, posted a .378 on-base percentage, and collected 25 extra-base hits en route to a .457 slugging percentage.
The Fall League is a higher class of talent than he has faced. He said that in Cuba players were older and more wily, but the game was paced slower and without the same structure as in the U.S.
Martinez, who hit for the cycle Monday for the Surprise Saguaros, said that he feels like he can hang with the players in the Fall League.
“Everybody is going to have their good days and bad days,” Martinez said. “But I feel like I’m right along with everybody else.”
That’s good news for him, as the Rangers look to step on the accelerator next season. Should he continue to play at a high level against high-level competition – Martinez entered Tuesday batting .344 and slugging .563 in 32 at-bats – he could be in Double A Frisco by midseason.
“The reason we put him in this program was to face competition we feel like he’s going to face in 2019 and continue to build off that,” assistant farm director Paul Kruger said. “He could jump, yes. The idea is to get him into a full season to a place in which he can get off to a good start and kind of go from there.”
The Northwest League was age-appropriate for the 22-year-old Martinez, who is able to speak to the family and friends he left behind after defecting from Cuba in 2017. He established residency in Haiti late in the year and started holding workouts for teams in the Dominican Republic.
After Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, the Rangers had more than $3.5 million in their international signing pool. The bulk of it went to Martinez, who agreed to terms in early March after MLB granted him free agency.
Martinez was put through a spring training of sorts in the Dominican Republic and debuted there in the Dominican Summer League before jumping to Spokane. He considered his season a success, for what he did on and off the field.
So do the Rangers.
“It think it’s been a good year,” Kruger said. “You start out when he joined our Dominican program in June, and his progression from that program to Spokane and getting used to our culture – as a Texas Ranger and in the United States – just getting acclimated to being here, I think, was the No. 1 focus.”
Martinez is one of the Rangers’ top three position players in the minors, but the other two are also center fielders and also in Class A. Kruger said that it won’t be difficult to find places for Martinez, Bubba Thompson and Leody Taveras to play in 2019, and it’s also important that they learn to play the corner spots.
They could all be in the same Rangers outfield, theoretically. Martinez expects to be there in two more seasons, and he now knows the road that lies ahead.
“I always knew it was going to be hard and now I know first-hand it is just as hard as I thought it would be,” he said. “A lot of things you have to work on, a lot of matchups got to see, and most important, you have to make adjustments.”