Perez getting major league experience

SURPRISE, Ariz. – When left-hander Martin Perez entered spring training this year, he didn't have any experience against major league competition. But the Texas Rangers are giving their top pitching prospect at least two Cactus League starts this March. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the 20-year-old hurler.

Although he's just 20 years old (turning 21 in April), Martin Perez has been on the prospect radar for nearly five seasons at this point, beginning with his professional debut during the summer of 2008.

Since pitching with short-season Spokane in '08, Perez has gradually climbed the ladder from Single-A Hickory in '09, Double-A Frisco for parts of three seasons, and up to Triple-A Round Rock late last year.

Now, Perez is finally getting his first taste of the major leagues. The Venezuela native, who initially signed for a reported $580,000 bonus on July 2, 2007, was added to the Rangers' 40-man roster over the offseason, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.

The Rangers aren't just letting their top pitching prospect pitch in a couple of major league games, though. He is also getting a chance to start a handful of games.

Perez will almost certainly begin the year back in the Pacific Coast League. He's a youngster who still has plenty to work on, as evidenced by his 6.43 earned-run average in 10 Triple-A starts last season. But he's not short on talent, and the Rangers are giving him an opportunity to get his feet wet against top competition.

After beginning his spring by pitching in a couple of back-field games, Perez faced off against the Los Angeles Dodgers' ‘A' lineup on March 9. He went against hitters like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Juan Rivera.

The Rangers' top pitching prospect had his ups and downs in the start, working two innings and yielding two runs. He gave up three hits and walked three without recording a strikeout while throwing 23 of his 41 pitches for strikes.

Regardless of the result, Perez came away happy with the outing.

"I felt pretty good," Perez said of his Cactus League debut. "I think I did good. I need to keep working and just have more concentration. But I felt pretty good. I was keeping the ball down, and then I threw the two-seamer and my breaking pitch really good."

The results weren't ideal, but they were largely insignificant given the fact that Perez is likely to spend most of the 2012 season developing in Triple-A. The good news for the hurler is that all three of his pitches were sharp––a 91-94 mph fastball, 75-78 mph curveball and 81-84 mph changeup.

Though Perez issued three walks, his control wasn't a major issue. He threw a first-pitch strike to eight of the 11 hitters he faced but got too fine at times. Justin Sellers drew a walk after being down 0-2, when Perez threw him a curveball low and in, a changeup just away, and a fastball in the dirt before missing with another fastball.

His stuff was good, but Perez is learning about the discipline of major league-caliber hitters––a big part of the standard developmental process.

"I say every day that (major leaguers) are different players," Perez said. "They just want to swing at one pitch. They don't act like minor league guys, who swing at all these pitches. But you can't throw a perfect pitch. When you try to throw the perfect pitch, you have walks and have to throw extra pitches."

Despite last year's Triple-A struggles, the 6-foot-0, 180-pound prospect showed major improvement in 2011 at Double-A in two areas––he worked low in the zone with his fastball more often, and his curveball became a more consistent out pitch.

Perez did an excellent job of working low in the zone with his entire arsenal in Saturday's start against Los Angeles. All six of his outs recorded were on the ground (including a double play).

Prior to this spring, Perez had worked almost exclusively with a four-seam fastball. But the left-hander says he began developing a two-seamer this offseason, and he's now using it more often than the four-seamer.

"Last year, I just threw a couple (two-seamers)," he said. "But in the offseason, I was working with my two-seam. I feel pretty good now. I think it's my best pitch now. That's what they tell me. They say, ‘Your best pitch is the two-seamer. You can use your fastball, but use more two-seam.'

"When I use the two-seamer, I make the ball down, and that's what I want."

Perez says that, in general, his two-seam fastball has the same velocity as his four-seamer but with a little more life.

The curveball, which he threw between 75-78 mph on Saturday, has gradually developed into a third pitch that's on the brink of plus. It's a pitch with good depth that he can throw for strikes early in the count and bury in the dirt to chase strikeouts when ahead.

"I feel better with my curveball this year," he said. "I think I've got more feeling with my curveball. I can throw it for a ball or for a strike––both. I worked in the Dominican, too, with my curveball. I feel pretty good. I can throw it in or outside. I've got more experience with it now."

After he logged 137.1 innings during the regular season in 2011, Perez returned home to Venezuela but was not allowed to play winterball for Magallanes. Though he played a stint with the club after the 2010 campaign, the Rangers wanted their top prospect fully rested entering this season.

Perez spent the offseason at home before traveling to the Rangers' Dominican Republic complex for a pre-spring workout around January 20. While there, Perez says he was working on his entire game while also trying to set an example for the organization's younger Latin American prospects.

"I was working on my body and my command (in the Dominican)," said Perez. "And I was working on my two-seam fastball. It's pretty good for me. I had a couple weeks in the Dominican. It was pretty good.

"I want to set an example for the other guys. They watch me––what I do every day. I was working hard in the Dominican. It's a different country (than Venezuela), but it's the same language."

Perez appears well on his way to leading by example, going from international amateur signee in 2007 to 40-man roster in 2012. But the hurler realizes he's not major league-ready just yet.

Following a strong performance at Double-A last season in which he posted a 3.16 ERA, Perez was highly inconsistent in 10 Triple-A starts. With Round Rock, he had a 6.43 ERA and surrendered 72 hits in 49 innings pitched.

"I think I threw well for my first year in Triple-A," he said, looking back at 2011. "The guys have more years than me––more experience. My first outing was pretty good. My last few––wow. It was unbelievable. But baseball is a process. You need to learn every day. I think I did a good job last year."

As mentioned, Perez is a virtual lock to break camp with the Express. Although he's now just one step away from the majors, he knows his time will come when he is ready––he's not thinking about Arlington just yet.

"I don't think about (the major leagues)," he said. "Because when they give me the opportunity, I'm going to do my job. I never think, ‘Okay, I want to play in the big leagues.' All players want to play in the major leagues. But if you don't do your job, you don't get to play there. If they give me the opportunity, I want to take it and do my job and throw the ball over the plate."

Perez is now looking forward to his second Cactus League start, which will come on Thursday, March 15 against the division-rival Oakland Athletics. Regardless of the opponent, he wants to take the same approach in any major league outing while developing the mental aspect of his game.

"I don't get nervous," Perez said. "I was just relaxed. I am thinking about throwing strikes––throwing the ball over the plate.

"But you have to learn every day. When you have your mind good and your mind relaxed, everything is good."

Prospect Video:

Martin Perez throws in spring intrasquad game (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Read more on Perez's spring, his development, and his outing against the Dodgers at this link.

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