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Juan Nieves on the path to a healthy post-World Series pitching staff

02.07.14 at 4:49 pm ET
By
Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves (AP)

Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves (AP)

Of the 11 pitchers who stepped on the mound for the Red Sox last October, 10 remain on the team’s roster as it prepares for its title defense. Only left-handed reliever Franklin Morales, who tossed 1 1/3 innings in three postseason contests, is gone, having been dealt to the Rockies (along with minor leaguer Chris Martin) in exchange for utility infielder Jonathan Herrera.

That returning group offers both promise and a challenge. On the one hand, Sox pitchers represented the backbone of the team’s championship run, with the team’s 2.59 ERA having been the best among the playoff competitors. The idea of bringing back 10 contributors to that effort — starters Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake PeavyFelix Doubront and Ryan Dempster (who contributed out of the bullpen in October) and relievers Koji UeharaCraig Breslow, Brandon Workman and Junichi Tazawa – thus has obvious appeal. At the same time, the Sox must be mindful of the extra month of work to which that group was subjected.

The latter issue helps to explain not only why the Sox preserved so much of their pitching inventory this winter but also why the team looked to deepen its roster with the additions of relievers such as Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop (along with depth options such as left-handers Rich Hill and Jose Mijares as well as potential swingman Dalier Hinojosa, a defector from Cuba). Yet concern for the well-being of the returning pitchers will also necessitate some spring training routine tweaks by pitching coach Juan Nieves.

Nieves is aware of the need to navigate a pitching staff through the hangover following a championship. During his five-year run as the bullpen coach of the White Sox, Nieves and Chicago pitching coach Don Cooper had multiple opportunities to discuss why a pitching staff that anchored a White Sox title run in 2005 (3.61 ERA) saw its ERA soar (4.61) the following season.

“When you have a staff like Chicago in ’05 like [Jon] Garland, [Mark] Buehrle, [Jose] Contreras, Freddy Garcia, El Duque (Orlando Hernandez), these guys are seasoned guys who have had incredible careers, but it’s true, it took a little bit out of them,” Nieves said by phone this week. “How you handle them in the early part of the season is going to be key to it.”

If handled properly, Nieves believes, a pitching staff need not regress after a championship run.

“My biggest concern is that guys are healthy,” said Nieves. “Of course they pitched an extra month. I think those innings are very important because you were pitching at a much higher [stress] level.

“[But] I never view it as we pitched so well in October, is that going to hinder us during the season?” he added. “Of course, everyone gets their bumps and bruises. Overall, in our pitching staff last year, we didn’t have a 20-game winner, but there were guys who through long stretches pitched like No. 1s and No. 2s, and that to me is the key. They’re going to be challenged the same way they were last year in spring training, from the minute they step on the mound and pick up that first ball in PFP. We’re working to get ready from April 1 hopefully all the way through October.”

The Sox pitching coach, now entering his second year in Boston, suggested that some players will face modified spring schedules in deference to their extra work in October. Buchholz, Doubront, Peavy and Dempster will be on a standard spring schedule of starting every fifth day of the Grapefruit League Season; Lester and Lackey, on the other hand, will spend the first three to four weeks of exhibition games starting every sixth day, with extra work on the side (a second bullpen session and/or long toss) meant to offer delivery and arm slot maintenance.

“Because they compiled innings, Lester and Lackey are going to have a spring training where they benefit from pitching every six days,” Nieves said. “Delivery and command is the goal.”

Of the relievers, Uehara, Breslow and Tazawa will likewise work with less-than-typical frequency in games as they build up to the regular season.

“The guys like Uehara, Breslow and Tazawa, their spring training, they don’t have to pitch every two or three days,” said Nieves. “We can be a little bit more creative and have long toss in between, bullpens in between. That will really help a lot.”

The presence of six veteran starters along with several prospects (such as WorkmanAllen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Drake Britton, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens and Hinojosa) who can work multiple innings while being stretched out for likely season-opening assignments in Triple-A will permit the Sox to manage the innings of Lester, Lackey and the trio of relievers in the spring.

Of course, that raises the question of whether the Sox might consider employing six starters for stretches of the regular season as well in order to manage the innings load of Lester (248 combined regular season and postseason innings) and Lackey (215 1/3 combined innings). For instance, at the start of the season, the Red Sox have Opening Day on March 31, a day off, and then 12 games in as many days, followed by a day off and 13 consecutive days with games. During that time, the Sox have the luxury of considering a six-man rotation in order to give the members of their staff five days between every start — a potentially valuable way of making the buildup of the pitching staff for the regular season more gradual than might be the case with a strict adherence to a five-man rotation.

Nieves said that no decisions had been made about whether the team — barring a trade of one of the six returning starters — might employ a six-man rotation in the season’s early weeks. But while no determination has been made about the possibility of a six-man rotation, the Sox pitching coach did emphasize that a potential surplus of veteran starters represents a meaningful asset for the Sox as they prepare for their title defense.

“We haven’t come up to that crossroads yet. … It’s something that [manager John Farrell] and I will sit down and talk about, of course with the coaching staff and the GM will be there,” said Nieves. “[But] the more the merrier. The more depth we have, I think it puts us in a great position. I think a lot of teams out there would love to have that problem. It’s a wonderful situation to be in. I know our pitchers, our staff, will buy into anything that benefits our team. That’s the most important.”

While Nieves works to do everything in his power to put the veteran members of the Sox pitching staff in position to have a healthy start to 2014, he also suggested an eagerness to work with the group of prospects that will offer the team reinforcements at times when there are injuries or struggles among the group of veterans.

“I’m excited to see a new wave of younger kids — seeing Workman back and Britton and Doubront, Rubby and Webster and Barnes and Owens, Hinojosa.
It’s interesting because we have a lot of guys from our organization coming up. It’s going to be fun to be able to have your eyes and hands on them. It’s going to be very interesting to see that,” said Nieves. “We have the future in sight.”

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