SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Left-hander Martin Perez starts for the Rangers on Monday against the Rockies in Scottsdale.
"Yeah, it's my first time to pitch in Spring Training," Perez said. "I'm excited but I'm not nervous."
The Rangers don't want him to be either one. They want him calm and composed on the mound, to trust his terrific ability and pitch to contact. If Perez can do that, the Rangers might finally see the permanent arrival of a 21-year-old from Venezuela who has been considered their top pitching prospect the past several years. This is the fifth straight season Perez has been ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, and it's time for him to graduate.
"Great fastball, great off-speed stuff, good knowledge for a young guy, good idea of what he is doing on the mound," catcher Geovany Soto said. "When he's throwing the ball down in the zone, he's untouchable."
Perez ended last season as the Rangers' fifth starter but did not distinguish himself and now has to win the job back. He faces tough competition from veterans Kyle McClellan and Randy Wells, fellow rookie Justin Grimm and left-handed reliever Robbie Ross. They are all competing for a job that theoretically may go away in June when Colby Lewis comes off the disabled list.
But given the potential for injuries, anybody who does win the No. 5 spot has a good chance of staying in the rotation beyond when Lewis comes back -- if they take advantage of the situation. The Rangers were begging for starters last June when Perez and Grimm were summoned from the Minor Leagues.
"I know this is my opportunity," Perez said. "It's a big opportunity. I'm taking everything seriously. This is my job, my family, my wife, they are depending on me.
"I know what I can do and I know they have been waiting to see what I can do. They have been waiting for this for a long time and I'm going to do exactly what they want to see."
Perez, who pitched in 38 innings for the Rangers last season, has a 92-mph fastball, a good curve and slider, and a changeup that can be devastating. Opponents swung and missed at 34.6 percent of the changeups thrown by Perez last season. Royals pitcher James Shields may have the best changeup in the game and opponents whiffed on 36.7 percent of the ones he threw.
But Perez is not Shields. While Shields was winning 15 games for Tampa Bay last year, Perez was just another nervous rookie trying to find his way in his first season in the big leagues. He ended up 1-4 with a 5.45 ERA in six starts and six relief appearances over three tours with the Rangers. That included an 0-3 run with a 12.46 ERA in his final three starts during the Rangers' collapse at the end of the season.
The biggest problem was not his talent but his composure on the mound. That's been an issue all through his Minor League career, partly because he has always been one of the youngest pitchers at each league in his rise through the farm system.
When Perez gets in trouble -- often early in games -- he starts getting excited, anxious and ultimately erratic. He starts pitching to avoid contact rather than making batters hit the ball and ends up issuing too many walks. Instead of staying under control, Perez ends up giving away a big inning. He is hardly unique among young pitchers in that regard.
"Oh yeah, it still happens," Matt Harrison said. "It's something you have to work hard on; controlling your emotions on the mound is huge. Hitters pick up on it. You get excited and overconfident, you start leaving pitches in the middle. You get under-confident and nervous, you start walking people.
"When a game gets tough, sometimes you have to step off the mound, get yourself back together and get back to business. It's something you learn over time, what to do to get you back to where things were when they were going right."
Perez has shown the aptitude to adjust to higher leagues. He was 5-8 with a 5.96 ERA in 23 starts and one relief appearance at Double-A Frisco in 2010 while allowing 10.6 hits, 4.5 walks and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He went back to Frisco the next season and was 4-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 17 games while averaging 8.2 hits, 3.7 walks and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
He was 7-8 with a 5.86 ERA in his first 21 starts at Triple-A Round Rock and 4-2 with a 3.27 ERA in his last 11 outings that were mixed in with his time in the big leagues. The Rangers bounced him back and forth from the Minor Leagues, and if he can maintain his composure on the mound and let his talent take over, he can get off the Round Rock shuttle.
"Last summer was up and down and I know it wasn't my time," Perez said. "This year I understand more. I have a chance to stay up here if I do my job. You have to be ready in your mind to compete in the big leagues. I think I'm ready."
He gets a chance to start showing it on Monday against the Rockies.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.