Healthy Perez poised for breakout

Healthy Perez poised for breakout

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers pitcher Martin Perez has one goal this year.

"Stay healthy," he said.

That seems obvious for any pitcher, but it has been an elusive goal for Perez the past two years. Even after the left-hander returned from Tommy John surgery last summer, something still wasn't quite right.

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"Last year … pain and tightness," Perez said. "Some days I was good, some days not. It was never something I couldn't pitch with, but this year, it's perfect, nothing, no pain. There is nothing I have to worry about."

The Rangers have been waiting for this for a long time. Technically, he is the Rangers' fourth starter, behind Cole Hamels, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland. But the Rangers have never projected him as just a No. 4 guy.

"I'll be honest. Just like our other three guaranteed starters," pitching coach Doug Brocail said, "he has a chance to win 15-20 games. Innings are important because if he gets near 200 innings, he is keeping us in every ballgame. But he looks very good this spring."

The Rangers thought Perez would have had a breakthrough season by now. He was 10-6 with a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts for them in 2013 after starting the season on the disabled list with a broken left arm, and he signed a four-year, $12.5 million contract extension after that season. It appeared to be a shrewd deal for the Rangers because it also included three club options that keep Perez under their control through 2020.

Then came the injury. Perez was 4-0 with a 1.42 ERA in five starts to begin 2014, lost his next three and then started feeling pain in the elbow. He underwent surgery on May 19 that year and has been fighting to get back to full strength ever since.

"I feel more positive this spring," Perez said. "I feel more comfortable. There is nothing wrong with my arm."

If he is healthy, it comes down to pounding the strike zone with his sinking fastball, getting swings and misses on the changeup and throwing his breaking ball for a strike.

"So much like others, it's consistency of innings," manager Jeff Banister said. "Stick with what he has success with. Just because the inning flipped doesn't mean you have to change. Trust your stuff and be keenly aware of what's going on around you. At times of high stress, hit the reset button, step off the mound, take a deep breath and focus on the next pitch."

Perez can get emotional on the mound. Banister said Hamels does, too, but the veteran knows how to channel it.

"By the time he gets back the ball back and steps on the mound again, he is focused on the next pitch," Banister said of Hamels.

Perez, like so many other pitchers in camp, is eager to learn from Hamels.

"I like to watch him," Perez said. "He's a No. 1 guy. I don't ask him too many questions because I don't like to bother him. But at the same time I like to watch him, how he moves, his mechanics, his routine and how he does things, all his stuff. I like to do those things because I want to learn as much as I can so someday maybe I can be better than him."

That is a pretty lofty goal, but the Rangers have always had high expectations for the 24-year-old. This is a guy who was pitching in Double-A Frisco at the age of 18. back in 2009, when he was the Rangers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

That was seven years ago. Tommy John surgery set him back for two of those. Now that is behind him.

"I think this will be a big year for me and the team," Perez said.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.