I’ve gone to spring training every year but one since high school, but I didn’t start going out to Fall Instructional League until 2007, motivated that October to visit Surprise and get a look at a huge collection of new prospects the club had added that summer, primarily through the trades of Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton and a draft that included five first-round picks.
I’d read (and written) plenty about trade acquisitions Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Engel Beltre, and Max Ramirez and draftees like Julio Borbon, Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Tommy Hunter, Neil Ramirez, and Mitch Moreland, but not as much about the Rangers’ J2 class from that summer. In fact, all I’d written in 2007 about the prize of that crop, 16-year-old Venezuelan lefthander Martin Perez, was the significant signing bonus ($580,000) the organization had invested in young pitcher, at a time when the Rangers were talking about a resurgence in Latin America but had yet to make too much of a splash.
It was a great three or four days of baseball at its most fundamental, least flashy level, but five and a half years later, one of the lasting memories I carry from that first post-season visit to Surprise was of Perez, walking slowly behind the chain link fence girding the primary back fields diamond, without an expression of any kind on his face.
It wasn’t the look of a kid in his mid-teens who was overwhelmed by the bigness of the environment while slightly older players like Andrus and Beltre and Hunter and Borbon bounced around like fraternity brothers. It was very different from that.
Perez had this arresting poise and look of quiet confidence that belied his age. I wrote that he was “16 but looks 20,” though it was more than that – he looked like a 20-year-old too mature to be just 20.
It was the kind of look Feliz has never had. And the kid was 16.
It was easy to take whatever your estimation was of the pitcher, and tack on a little extra confidence that he was going to figure out what needed to be done to execute on all that promise.
We all know the story. Perez almost immediately settled in as a top-tier prospect in a top-tier system. After 2008, his first season of official action, Baseball America ranked him as the number 86 prospect in baseball. After 2009, he was number 17. After 2010, in spite of a rough year in AA, he was number 24. After 2011, he was number 31. After those four seasons, BA ranked him number 5, 3, 1, and 2 in a strong Rangers system.
Stories focused on his stuff and competitiveness and size, alternating between Johan Santana comparisons and Ron Guidry comps.
Then came 2012, the year that Perez was supposed to follow his trend of pulling things together in his second year at a level. He would settle in at AAA Round Rock and force his way to Texas at some point.
But when the Rangers needed a starter from the farm, the organization dipped down to Frisco and grabbed Justin Grimm, even though he was pitching at one level lower than Perez and even though he wasn’t on the 40-man roster and Perez was. Grimm was pitching better, and earned the nod.
But something kicked into gear for Perez at that point, and he was in Texas a week and a half after that.
His time with the Rangers was inconsistent. Take out the debut against Detroit (two outs, four runs) and the brutal September 26 start against Oakland (two outs, five runs), and his 5.45 ERA would have been 3.44 – but that’s the thing. You don’t get to toss those out. He’s got to be more dependable in order to earn playing time on a contending baseball team.
Ron Washington praised Perez early in camp this month, focusing mostly on his ability to keep the ball down and to mix in his slider and change with more consistency.
He did that a week ago today in the club’s first intrasquad game, throwing a scoreless inning that took only nine pitches – all strikes – to complete.
But yeah, that was basically a scrimmage, and in the fifth inning that Perez worked, the Jackie Moore squad batted out of order. (I assume intentionally.)
It was better than retiring one batter and allowing four to cross the plate, but getting too excited would have been a mistake. We all know what Perez is capable of. What’s been missing is the ability to repeat it. Consistently.
There’s an opening at fifth starter, at least until Colby Lewis returns, but Texas, having missed out on Zack Greinke and perhaps James Shields and R.A. Dickey, has resisted opportunities to bring in someone like Kyle Lohse or Javier Vazquez, both of whom remain unsigned, or other veterans who might have represented a likely upgrade over Perez or Grimm or another young pitcher. The club, at least at this point, doesn’t want to put any more roadblocks up in front of the kids.
The manager talked yesterday morning, hours before Perez’s spring training debut against Colorado, about the good work he’s done the first two weeks of camp. But Washington was quick to add: “Now, can he do that when a hitter steps up there?”
Perez faced six Rockies, all big leaguers. He got Eric Young Jr. to ground out and Dexter Fowler to fly out and caught Troy Tulowitzki looking at a fastball to end the first. He got Michael Cuddyer to pop out to first and Yorvit Torrealba to roll out to first and struck Josh Rutledge out by burying a slider at his feet to swiftly end the second inning, and his day.
The 3-1 counts on Young and Fowler to start the game led to a 16-pitch effort to complete the perfect first, a slight blemish on that opening frame. Eleven pitches in the second was better.
Washington spoke after the game about that poise that Perez has always flashed. “He’s been looking like that since he arrived in camp,” said the skipper. “The experience he got last year, he’s picked it up and ran with it. He looks like a mature kid – all business.”
Perez talked about what he learned from 2012 and what he’s doing to correct it. “I overthrew last year and missed a lot of the zone. Now I know I don’t have to throw hard. I just need to throw strikes. Throw more strikes.”
He’s doing that.
Asked if he feels the pressure of having to compete for a rotation spot, the lefthander, now 21, said, “No. It’s an opportunity and you don’t need to think too much. Just go to the mound and do your job. I trust my team and the team trusts me. . . . If they give me an opportunity, I just want to do my best and do my job. We want to win the World Series, and that’s all I think about is win, win, win. You’re not a baby up here. Up here, it’s all about winning.”
That’s the guy I saw in October 2007, the kid whose maturity stood out as much as the sharp breaking ball and Bugs Bunny change.
Perez is number 81 in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects ranking this spring, his lowest slot since his age 17 season. Jason Parks is a bit more bullish, tagging him at number 59.
The fact that he continues to be thought of in that sort of context, in spite of his 2012 struggles, says a lot about the upside that’s still there.
But it’s time for raw and inconsistent to give way to effective and reliable. The Rangers are contenders, and while the number five starter opening may basically turn out be a placeholder role, this is nonetheless a club that’s not in a position to be conducting auditions when the games count.
There’s an important month ahead for Perez, but so far, really good.