[Ed. note: The author would like to express gratitude to Mariners prospect Gunn Omosako for translation help and only belittling the author’s Spanish abilities a little. Okay, more than a little, but the quality of translation made up for it.]
This was supposed to be the year Mariners fans got a glimpse at how Seattle’s next Dominican sensation performed stateside. Back in October, I interviewed Noelvi Marte when he was in Peoria for his second trip through the Mariners’ high performance camp (HPC), planning to release the interview in advance of Opening Day for MiLB, when Marte was expected to make his US debut for either the West Virginia Power or the Everett AquaSox. Instead, the coronavirus postponed, and then eventually led to the cancellation of, the minor league season. However, the Mariners have been aggressive in adding lower-level prospects to their taxi squad, and Noelvi Marte’s first at-bats in the US outside of a spring training complex will come at Cheney Stadium, just down the road from the place he’s had his eye on since he first arrived at the Mariners’ Academy in the Dominican Republic.
But there is still significance to the release date of this article. Today is July 2nd, a day that is practically a national holiday in the Dominican Republic, as it marks the beginning of the “J2” signing period, when clubs ink promising young prospects who have had their 16th birthdays (or will have them primary to September 1 of the signing period). Players count down to their signing days, both figuratively and literally, with Instagram features that mark off the time the same way US-born kids count down to their “sweet 16” birthdays. Instead of a license, however, the reward for these players is a contract that has the potential to change the financial trajectory of entire families for generations.
The city of Cotuí, tucked into the foothills of the Yamasá mountains, is normally a quieter spot in the Dominican Republic, two hours north of the capital, Santo Domingo, and located inland, well away from the beaches popular with tourists. But on a night early in July in 2018, cars, trucks, ATVs, motorcycles, even bicycles—anything with wheels that moved and made noise—filled the streets of the village, horns honking and merengue music blasting from every available speaker. Spectators lined the streets, raising bottles of Presidente beer and shouting along with the music. The mood was part parade, part block party, and all celebratory, and the reason for it all was a sixteen-year-old baseball player named Noelvi Marte.
Cotuí has produced a modest number of big-leaguers; Teoscar Hernandez and Francis Martes are the two active players from the city, and a variety of others—Duanar Sanchez, Winston Abreu, Jose Capellan— have had at least a couple years in MLB. The biggest star from Cotuí as yet is pitcher Ramón Ortiz, who had a solid if unspectacular 12-year career in the bigs.
The record for the highest signing bonus for a player from Cotuí, however, had for over a decade belonged to pitcher Rafael Rodriguez. Signed by the Angels for $780,000 in 2001, Rodriguez made it to the majors in 2009 before becoming part of a trade for Dan Haren (and later Tyler Skaggs) in 2010, which was also Rodriguez’s last year in baseball. Even adjusting for inflation, however, Noelvi Marte’s 1.5M signing bonus edges out Rodriguez’s, making his bonus the highest-ever given to a player from Cotuí (as well as the highest bonus ever given to a player from his training academy in the DR, under trainer Francisco Almonte).
Prior to signing, Marte was ranked the 4th best prospect in the class by Baseball America and #10 by MLB. He chose to sign with the Mariners, he says, not because of the signing bonus promised or because they were the most high-profile team who reached out to him early on but because from the beginning, he has felt an emotional connection to the club. “From the first day I came to the organization, they welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “They have taken good care of me, and I feel they will take good care of me in the future.” Marte was drawn to the emphasis the Mariners put on being a family, something he feels he doesn’t hear his friends in other organizations speaking about as much.
Family is important to Marte; the first thing he did with that hefty signing bonus was to build a house for his mother. The second thing he did, following his father’s advice, was purchasing a small plaza in Cotuí, including a mini-mart (“colmado”) and some storefronts, making himself a teenage dueño, or landlord. Marte is a local celebrity in Cotuí; people stop him in the street for pictures and the local paper reports on his achievements in baseball, from winning MVP in the DSL to his recent invitation to join the taxi squad (the paper in Santo Domingo picked up that story, as well, noting that if Marte were to receive a callup to the big leagues, he would be the first-ever prospect to go from the DSL to MLB).
Despite his celebrity status, Noelvi Marte the person is quiet and somewhat soft-spoken. I first met Marte in October of 2018, fresh off his introductory three months in the Mariners’ Academy and a trip to Arizona for the High Performance Camp (HPC), when an enthusiastic Julio Rodriguez dragged him in front of me and commanded him to say hello in English, which Marte did, haltingly. “This is a guy you’re gonna wanna know,” said Julio, himself not a household name among Mariners fans at the time. “This is gonna be the guy.”
A year later, Marte is more confident in this interview, even mixing in some English phrases or nodding understanding to questions or comments posed in English, but the reserved, serious demeanor remains. When he first came to Arizona for HPC, he was somewhat intimidated, he says, and quieter than normal because he wanted to “keep his mouth closed and his ears open to learn.” With his friends, he says, he’ll come out of his shell more, but in a professional environment, he prefers to stay quiet and focused and lead by example. There are advantages, too, to his particular leadership style amongst Dominican players, known for their love of constantly wearing each other out and nonstop chatter during games.
“Cuando yo hablo, ellos escuchan,” he grins. When I do speak, they listen.
Marte’s quiet intensity translates into the way he attacks the goals he sets for himself. At the Academy, he worked hard to shed his remaining baby fat and transform it into lean muscle, dedicating himself to a low-fat diet. Marte is listed at 6’1”, although he looks taller, and has a large frame that has caused some scouts to predict he’ll need to move off shortstop to third eventually, along with some defensive miscues at short. “My throws,” Marte answers quickly when asked what he’s been focusing on improving. “When I had an error, it was on the throw.” Before things were shut down this spring, Marte had been logging practice time with wunderkind coach Louis Boyd, whose defensive prowess Marte can’t express in English or Spanish, just a sharp exhalation in recognition of Boyd’s abilities with the glove.
Noelvi Marte taking infield practice with defensive whiz Louis Boyd at Spring Training pre-shutdown pic.twitter.com/HYkFiub3nw— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 2, 2020
To those who would say he can’t stick at short, a position he’s played since childhood and loves, Marte shrugs. “I have the will to play shortstop, and as long as I have the strength and skills to play there, I will work hard every day to do what I need to do.” He points out that baseball is a game of failure, and the most important thing is to not get too wrapped up in what happens day to day but stay mentally tough and focused on long-term goals. His goal for the 2019 season, for example, was to end the season hitting over .300, but if he had a bad day at the plate he shrugged it off and chose instead to focus on his successes over the week. “Don’t let the bad thoughts in, or they take over. Focus on the good and believe in your talent.”
Making the leap off the island and to stateside ball has been Marte’s primary goal since he signed. Prior to the season, Marte set as a goal being assigned to Class A West Virginia for the beginning of the minor league season, rather than being sent to the Arizona League and later moved up to Everett. Due to the pandemic, he’ll now find himself in Tacoma, steps away from the big league club and among players several years older and more fluent in English than himself. Even Juan Then and Julio Rodriguez, his fellow Dominican teenagers on the taxi squad, have spent more time stateside than him. But, says Marte, “I chose baseball, and this is what it takes to be a baseball player. This is my dream, so this is what I have to do for my future.”
And while he does have a steeper learning curve than some of his fellow prospects, Marte has already spent two falls in Arizona, becoming accustomed to a new environment, new weather, and new food. And he has the support, he says, of his father and his mother, who help him focus on the future.
He also has the help of fellow prospect Julio Rodriguez, who has imparted advice and taught Marte what he has learned along his journey. The most valuable piece of advice Julio has given Noelvi: understanding the cultural differences between how things in the US are run vs. things in the Dominican, which tend to run on their own schedule.
“Be on time, never be late for a meeting,” recites Noelvi of Julio’s teachings. “Follow the American guys and do what they do.”
While happy to have a friend and trailblazer in the organization, Marte is quick to note the differences between himself and his gregarious, chatty counterpart. “Everyone has their own path, their own journey.”
So if he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to the Dominican sensation who preceded him stateside, does Marte feel any sense of pressure in being one of the top prospects poised to hopefully bring glory to an organization that has been sorely lacking in it?
“No,” says Marte, he doesn’t feel pressure about being the #6 prospect in the organization, “because I want to be number one. So I don’t feel pressure, I feel equally calm as I continue to work towards being number one.” He pauses a moment to reflect. “The pressure will only increase as I move up, so I better get used to it now.”
Rather than being intimidated, Marte is excited by the high expectations placed on him and his fellow prospects. He’s thankful for all the support fans have showed him already, and is excited to earn that support even more by showing the fans what he can do. And he has one more message for Mariners fans: Keep up that faith, keep up the support, because a championship is coming.
“Does he really believe that?” I ask Gunn Omosako, a fellow prospect who has been helping translate during the interview.
No translation necessary—Noelvi’s head bobs an enthusiastic yes.
“What do you think?” I ask Gunn, who is nodding along with Noelvi.
“Of course,” he says with a smile. “If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will?”