When the Mariners traded Tom Wilhelmsen, James Jones and Patrick Kivlehan for Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass, I confess I was a little bit bummed. The Mariners desperately needed a center fielder, but with Martin’s struggles in 2015, and the M’s bullpen already looking a little thin, it was hard to let go of Wilhelmsen, one of my favorites, and Kivlehan, a prospect I really liked.
Let’s see how that turned out. First of all, Bass opted to pitch in Japan this year, which didn’t exactly endear me to the deal. I’ve bitched repeatedly that the Mariners bullpen is thin, and giving up a guy who might have contributed to mix did to a foreign country was not in the trading plans.
On the Texas side of things, James Jones did not make it through spring training. He is currently at AAA Round Rock where he is hitting a Jones-like .237/.291/.328. Jones has six 2B , three 3B, zero home runs, four stolen and been caught an equal number of times. At age 27, it’s hard to see a path forward to the major leagues for Jones unless all the Texas outfielders are accidentally struck by lightning in a golf tournament.
Kivlehan is also struggling at Round Rock with a .191/.260/.272 slash. After a pretty decent year in Tacoma in 2015, I thought he’d perform better. Both he and Jones are getting regular playing time, but simply not producing. For an organization like Texas, when all of their major leaguers seem like they are made of glass, this cannot be encouraging.
However the biggest disappointment of all has been The Bartender. Wilhelmsen was envisioned as quality depth for a bullpen that was pretty decent in 2015. Instead, the Texas bullpen is more like a hazardous waste dump, and Tommy is the most toxic of all the elements. By any measure, traditional or advanced, Wilhelmsen was terrible. 9.98 ERA, .378 batting average allowed, walks up, strikeouts down, HR/9 of 3.5, 39.5% of his batted balls were hit hard, about twice his career average. Wilhelmsen was arguably the worst reliever in baseball when he was sent to Round Rock on May 16th.
For this mess of pottage, the Rangers made sure Leonys Martin appeared in a Mariners uniform. And at first, second and last glance he looks good in Mariner colors. I’ve written a brief history of Mariner center-fielders since Safeco Field opened, and when the Mariners acquired Martin, it seemed he could be the real deal: a guy who could go get a ball with a strong throwing arm, who might hit just enough to stay on the field.
Defensively, Martin has not disappointed. So far he has four Defensive Runs Saved (DRS,) made 25 plays out of zone (OOZ) and has a UZR 150 rating of 10.7, in line with his career numbers. By contrast, 2015 centerfielder Austin Jackson had conflicting defensive data, with -1 DRS but an 8.9 UZR 150 with 0 being average.
The surprise isn’t that Martin can play center field; we knew that. It is what he brings to the offense. Martin had a poor year at the plate last year and finished the season with injuries and off the major league roster in a rancorous disagreement with Rangers management. As a hitter, Martin has been all or nothing. Didn’t walk much, struck out a lot, .252/.304/.367 lifetime slash. The Rangers insisted on batting him leadoff. Not really set up to be successful in that spot, when Martin faltered last year and was injured, they turned to Delino DeShields to fill the center field spot, which DeShields did admirably.
Martin expresses in interviews his repeated appreciation for coming over to the Mariners and Safeco Field where he enjoys the challenges of playing in a more expansive ballpark. He’s made some great catches most of the players who preceded him could not have made. But we expected that.
It’s the offense that is looking more and more interesting. Martin is currently slashing .231/.315/.454. For much of this season Martin struggled just to keep his nose over the Mendoza Line. However, he’s batting at the bottom of the order, instead of at the top. This seems to have relaxed him enough to be himself. But the last 15 games he’s absolutely caught fire at a .286/.379/.490 rate. His eight home runs ties his career high–on May 21st at the quater pole. Do I think he’ll hit 30+ home runs for the season? Not likely. But there is little question the adjustments he is making have improved his offense and value to the Mariners. Not to be forgotten in all this, is that Martin is the Mariners chief source of speed. He leads the team in stolen bases with seven and is an excellent base runner.
So, in exchange for three guys working in Round Rock, all of whom have questionable big league futures, Leonys Martin is making some noise as an above average center fielder, and a guy who is improving his game at the plate. Deal looks good to me.