In 2011, Mariners center fielders combined for -2.4 bWAR. In 2012, it was -0.3; the next year, it was -0.8. In 2014, the year Austin Jackson was acquired to spell a floundering James Jones, the position registered -1.7, worst in the American League. 2015 would see a slight uptick in bWAR, but the ranking remained the same. Gone are the halcyon days of Griffey. Gone too is the sweet, reassuring embrace of Mike Cameron, or the awe inspiring feats of Franklin Gutierrez promising Death to Flying Things. The Mariners outfield has been bad, and tinkering trades and various shortstops playing out of position haven't made it better. Safeco's spacious lawn has always been a thing to be conquered, the sort of weapon that can turn on those who wield it. Its size requires a calculated abandon paired with athleticism.
That description doesn't really fit anyone who has inhabited the position since Gutierrez's peak in 2009. Brad Miller was an odd flight of fancy that flitted away to Tampa Bay. Ketel Marte's emergence made a move from short seem like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Austin Jackson's defense was perfectly sufficient, never inspiring GIFs but also never inspiring. Good pitching and a large outfield were supposed to contain opposing clubs. Instead, it felt like a tar field that would swallow players whole as they tried to throw home. When Jerry Dipoto told us he wanted athletic, defensively talented outfielders, we nodded along vigorously at the novelty, wondering how we'd fallen so far. And that's what makes Leonys Martin such an interesting gamble. His defense represents one kind of return to form; if his bat doesn't improve, it represents another sort.
The defense is undeniable. Martin is a human highlight reel, and the statistics don't attempt to refute it. Take your pick of metrics and he's among the best defensive center fielders in baseball. As Eno Sarris pointed out in his analysis of the trade, Martin ranked in the top 5 by Fangraphs UZR/150 and DRS since 2012 and Baseball Prospectus likes him even better; despite only playing 95 games in the majors last year, he was fourth among center fielders by their defensive value and third in 2015. He has the distinction of being one of only 15 outfielders who threw the ball 100 mph. Not as a position player pitching in some sad, late inning affair, but as a fielder. He has range, taking fast, efficient routes to the ball. He has great first step quickness and terrific acceleration, even when he's out of position, like in this great grab to rob Mookie Betts of an extra base hit:
If stealing home runs is your preferred flavor of center-field defense, Martin's got that club in his bag, too. Here, we watch him ruin Mark Teixeira's day, taking away a shot to deep left center field. Teixeira is almost to second base before he realizes what's happened to him.
Martin combines that with a powerful throwing arm that's tailor-made for the vast expanses of Safeco. There are a lot of highlights of Martin throwing people out at home, but this one of him nabbing the speedy Jose Altuve might be one of my favorites. Martin plays the ball perfectly, and delivers an accurate strike. Altuve never really had a chance.
There is a grace and economy of movement in this throw. After so many years of watching noodle-armed outfielders fail trying to compensate for odd routes, seeing a center fielder get to the ball, play it cleanly off the hop and throw with strength and accuracy is enough to make you wonder why Martin was available for trade.
The answer is the bat, and Delino Deshields. Martin's 2015 was a very poor year at the plate, but it was poor in a predictable sort of way. Martin always profiled as a glove-first center fielder: The speed he demonstrated in the outfield translates to the basepaths, but one has to get on base in order to steal another. He set career lows in walks, average, on-base percentage, and slugging, and career highs in strikeouts. He'd had at least 30 stolen bases in his two prior full seasons, but a short season depressed his totals. When he did hit the ball, he made weak contact. His line drive percentage dropped. He was never a power hitter, but he was hampered by a wrist injury in May and seemed tentative at the plate. It wasn't that he was doing one thing really badly so much as he was doing everything less well. Delino Deshields leapfrogged him on the depth chart, and not long after Martin was demoted, he broke his hamate bone in his right hand. He had surgery, and returned for one game in September, but was left off the Ranger's playoff roster.
Looking ahead to 2016, there's reason for optimism. Martin's 2015 BABIP was significantly lower than in prior seasons; he tracked at .270 compared to .336 in his 3.5 fWAR 2014 and .319 in his 2.9 fWAR 2013. In the offseason, he worked with hitting coaches before playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He told Ryan Divish, "It's a great opportunity for me... I went to play in winter league for a little bit to reset my mind." He has a deep friendship with Nelson Cruz, and has spoken about how much he enjoys playing in Seattle. He'll never compete for a batting title, but with defense like his, he doesn't have to in order to be a solid contributor. He won't be asked to bat leadoff. He doesn't hit left handed pitching well, but platooned smartly, he likely won't be asked to. The combination of talent, regression, and smart usage by the club all suggest 2016 could look significantly different.
The question with respect to Martin is whether the rebound will be enough. Will the bat improve enough to justify giving that defensive profile 300 plate appearances? With little to trade, and tight payroll, Dipoto's options to make good on a plus defender were limited. He had to take a gamble. We're left to wonder if the gamble will pay off. On the first day of Spring Training, Martin said, "I knew it was going to be a good spot for me with good things. If you are happy, your mind is happy and everything is supposed to be good." If the plan works, if the gamble pays out, after years of watching players swallowed whole by the tar fields, we might witness everything being good, just like it was supposed to be.