Rangers need Martin Perez to keep growing

PHOENIX -- In a Texas Rangers rotation full of questions, Martin Perez has to be one of the answers.

Texas can’t afford a sophomore slump from the left-hander, who turns 23 less than a week after Opening Day. With Derek Holland out until likely the midseason and Matt Harrison unable to start the season on time, Perez has vaulted into a top-tier spot in this rotation as the season begins. He has to become a pitcher the club can count on to pitch every five days and give them a chance to win.

That could be a lot of pressure for one of the youngest pitchers in the game last year. But Perez doesn’t seem to let much of anything bother him, now that he’s got the confidence of a guy who started 20 games and pitched well enough to earn a contract extension.

“What impressed me more than anything else was how he was able to work out of situations in real time,” manager Ron Washington said. “We could talk about things that had to be done differently after a certain inning and he was able to go out there and apply it. That just shows maturity right there.”

Perez, who gave up one run in two innings of work in his first Cactus League start on Saturday with one walk and one strikeout, can’t take any of that success for granted.

“You have to work just as hard as you did to accomplish what you accomplished the first time around and the work is even harder the second time around because adjustments are being made and you have to adjust also,” Washington said.

It seems that Perez understands this. He spent the offseason working on his core, feeling that he had to be stronger to add to his inning total. Perez threw 124 1/3 innings last season and posted a 3.62 ERA in the big leagues. If you include his minor-league innings, Perez threw more than he had at any other time in his career.

The Rangers will need him to add to his innings total in 2014. As for resting on his laurels, Perez doesn’t seem to be doing that either. He spent some time this offseason (with pitching coach Mike Maddux) working on a cutter. He wants to use spring training to test it out and build some confidence so that he’s willing to use it more during the season.

Perez threw two cutters on Saturday and seemed indifferent to the results. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to throw the pitch out, either.

“I need to continue to trust it,” Perez said. “You need to practice when you’re trying to do something new. That’s what I need to do and throw that pitch and get ready for the season.”

Perez said he feels good and that his experience last year will help him improve this season. That’s what Washington likes to hear. The skipper just wants to be sure Perez stays hungry -- or perhaps thirsty -- when it comes to his conditioning and focus.

“He has the work ethic, but just like any young kid, you have to stay on top of them,” Washington said, talking more about strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez and his staff. “We’ve got to lead him to the water. We can’t just let him go to the water and then he decides whether he’s going to drink. We’ll lead him to the water and push his head in the water.”

It’s Perez’s job not to drown. The Rangers simply can’t afford it.