Tigers’ Leonys Martin looking to regain stroke

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers outfielders Leonys Martin, left, and Nicholas Castellanos high five each other after a drill at Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers spring training workout Friday at the spring training fields in Lakeland, Fla.

Lakeland, Fla. — It had been eight years since Tigers center fielder Leonys Martin had been able to spend any quality time with his family and friends in Cuba. He last saw his parents, Oscar and Emily, is 2015, but it was a very dissatisfying, almost agonizing hello-goodbye visit.

“Eight years, man,” Martin said with a sad shake of his head. “I had a really, really fun time with my family. I was really happy to see my family and spend time with my friends.

The Cuban government has recently relaxed restrictions on citizens who had emigrated out of the country, so Martin was finally able go back and stay for an extended period of time.

“After Jan. 1, the rules changed and allowed me to come back,” he said. “Now it’s a little bit more open and I can go back and forth.”

Being away so long, though, Martin found the homecoming somewhat bittersweet.

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“Time is no good to your country, you see a lot of things change,” he said. “You see a lot of people that you knew from before, it's tough, man. You ask about somebody and they say, 'No, he's dead.'

“And he was young, like – it’s hard.”

Martin, whom the Tigers signed to a one-year deal on Dec. 5 worth a base of $1.75 million and incentives worth another $1.1 million, spent his first day at TigerTown on Friday. Position players report on Monday.

“This is amazing,” he said. “First of all, thanks to the Tigers organization for giving me the opportunity to be here. I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve been playing baseball since I was a kid. This is an amazing opportunity for me.

“I’m going to go out there and do my best every single (day) and show to the Tigers fans that I can play and we can do things together.”

The Tigers are hoping Martin can not only win the everyday center field spot — he is battling JaCoby Jones — but also hit leadoff.

“Absolutely,” manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday. “I know this, he can be one of those guys who creates a lot of havoc on the base paths. You get him in our ballpark (Comerica), he gets a single up the middle and he can be standing on second base.

“That’s going to be my message and I’ve already talked about this with (hitting coach) Lloyd McClendon: ‘Just barrel the ball; you can fly.’ This guy can really do damage flying around the field.”

Martin, who turns 30 in March, is coming off a miserable offensive season. Playing just 49 games between the Mariners and Cubs, he hit a career-low .172 with a .232 on-base percentage and striking out 25 percent of the time. Not exactly an ideal line for a leadoff hitter.

And it was a far cry from the hitter Martin was in Texas in 2013 and 2014 when he posted a .268 average and a .319 on-base percentage, stealing 67 bases and posting a 3.5 and 4.6 WAR in those two seasons.

So what happened? Fifteen home runs in 2016 happened.

From left Tigers outfielders Leonys Martin and Nicholas Castellanos at Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers spring training workout.

“Last year was a really, really tough year for me,” he said. “I changed a few things at home plate. When I got to spring training, in the middle of spring training, I tried to change. I didn’t do what I was working on in the off-season.

“That's why I got confused a little bit at home plate. I had no plan. It was difficult to find myself at home plate. It was a tough year.”

He got caught up in the launch angle craze. He hit 15 home runs and he thought if he could change his swing mechanics, get more of an upper-cut type swing, maybe he’d hit 25 home runs.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “I got confused because I showed up in spring training last year with one plan and then in the middle of spring training, I changed. My mind got confused and I never found myself.

“I hit 15 homers the year before, but that's not my game, man. I always try to hit the ball to the gaps and I change it. And it doesn't work like that. If you work on something, you have to keep believing, believing in what you do. That’s what I did wrong.”

Martin feels like he’s back to his old swing mechanics, which will be music to Gardenhire’s ears.

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“If he drives the ball, that’s great, but his biggest value is how electric he can be running the bases and taking two and stealing that extra base,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve seen him be a real electric player. I think that’s the talent that got him to the big leagues and he should stay (with) that.

“I don’t think Comerica is the park to go up and try to bash the ball out to center field. But when they’re playing back and there’s all that room out there, he’ll be on second base an awful lot.”

There is no issue with his defense. According to Statcast data, he caught 90 percent of the balls hit to him last year; the big-league average is 84 percent.

“I know he can cover some ground,” Gardenhire said. “He’s an outfielder that can play shallow and still cover the balls hit behind him. And that’s a real value at Comerica Park. We have some real talented outfielders. JaCoby Jones can do the same thing.”

Martin considers himself a natural leadoff hitter.

“It’s normal,” he said. “It’s part of my game. Go out there, get on base and create a situation for the guy behind me. That’s what it’s about. Just play hard.”

He won’t have to travel too far for a little taste of home, either. He now shares a clubhouse with two fellow Cubans — Brayan Pena and Jose Iglesias. He is also friends with Nicholas Castellanos.

“I am happy to be here,” he said.

Twitter: @cmccosky