As the Sox begin spring training, a lot of eyes will be on their pitching staff. The starting group lacks an ace, and the bullpen is rather unsettled, with closer Koji Uehara coming off an injury-plagued year.
Those same eyes will be on pitching coach Juan Nieves, who enters his third season on the job. The first two have featured big highs (a Championship in 2013) and big lows ( a last place finish in ’14 marked by the departure of 4 of the 5 starters from the previous season).
Nieves has also known highs and lows in his own major league career. A native of Puerto Rico, he did not start pitching until age 14. His life changed rapidly when two coaches from Avon Old Farms Prep School in Connecticut took their team to the island in the spring of 1980 and heard about a teenage phenom. With the help of former major league first baseman Vic Power, Nieves earned a scholarship to the school.
Despite the huge changes-weather, food, personalities- the lefty flourished at AOF. In three years at the school, he captained 3 sports and excelled in baseball, sporting a 19-1 record and 1.05 ERA. His career batting average was .525.
Though many US colleges were after Nieves, he chose to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers. The $150,000 signing bonus did the trick, as he felt the money would help his parents back on the island.
After three years of huge success in the minors, Nieves made the bigs in 86. Though his first season with the Brewers was up and down, he remained a highly-rated hurler. After a year in winter ball, the youngster startled the baseball world by hurling a no-hitter on a cold April night in Baltimore in 1987.
He became the second youngest player to pitch one and the first ever by a native of Puerto Rico. It remains the only such achievement in Brewer history. He finished the year 14-8, but his ERA remained high at 4.88. He walked 100 but fanned 163,
Things went downhill for Nieves the following year. By the middle of May he was feeling shoulder soreness-later diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff. He spent much of 88 on the DL, starting only 15 times and finishing 7-5. No one knew, but his major league pitching career was already over. Nieves spent the next three years undergoing surgeries and trying to rehab in the minors. He bounced from the Brewers to the Yankees, but after 92 spring training, he decided to call it quits.
Nieves did not wallow in bitterness about his early exit from the majors. He worked as a minor league pitching instructor for the Yanks form 92 to 96 and for the White Sox from 99 to 07. For the next five years, he was the Chicago bullpen coach, working under well-known pitching mentor Don Cooper. John Farrell, another former pitching coach, brought him to Boston when he assumed the Red Sox managerial duties in 2013.
Unlike many careers marred early by injury, that of Nieves has been marked by perseverance and eventual success in the coaching world. Unlike some previous Boston pitching coaches, he seems to have the respect of his staff. His skills should be very valuable as the Townies once again attempt to bounce back into contention.