FORT MYERS, Fla. — Juan Nieves, who directed a Red Sox staff to a championship in his first season as a major league pitching coach in 2013, this season will have to manage a veteran staff, bring along the next generation of pitchers, and work in the newly acquired Chris Capuano.
Nieves was credited with getting the most out of the Red Sox staff a year ago, when Jon Lester became an ace, John Lackey returned successfully from Tommy John surgery, Felix Doubront moved a step closer to being a quality major leaguer, Clay Buchholz got off to a dazzling start before missing three months with a shoulder/neck injury, and Ryan Dempster and Jake Peavy filled veteran roles.
Nieves also brought Brandon Workman along, oversaw the installation of Koji Uehara in the closer role, and kept the bullpen together amid injuries.
If Nieves implored pitchers to “pound the strike zone” last season, his theme this year is “be consistent.”
“I hear guys say they want a better fastball, a better curveball, a better this,” Nieves said. “I say no, just be better with your consistency. Just be consistent. You have great stuff, just throw it consistently well.”
He’s telling Doubront to trust his stuff, to stop getting behind on the count.
“He only gave up 13 home runs last year, so why go 2-and-0, 3-and-0 when you can pound the zone and get people out?” Nieves said. “When he did that last season he got deep into games. He had a great run for us. It’s just a matter of consistency.”
Capuano is well aware he’s the sixth wheel on a five-man rotation. But the lefthander also has a good memory. He entered Dodgers spring training last season and they had eight starters.
“And it wasn’t long before I got a chance to start there,” said Capuano, a West Springfield, Mass., native. “Once you sign for a team and you’re there, you do what the manager wants you to do to the best of your abilities. I’m ready to contribute in any way I can.”
Capuano, who signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the opportunity to make $5 million with incentives, said he’s excited to pitch at Fenway Park because, “It’s one of the only stadiums I haven’t pitched in yet. I’m glad in spring training we have a replica . . . I’m looking forward to getting used to it.”
Nieves greeted him Saturday with a 10-day plan that includes Capuano throwing two bullpens and live batting practice and then getting into a game.
Nieves said he has his veteran starters on a different schedule than the others because of the short offseason. Yet he feels his plan will have them ready to start the season.
“We’re asking them to do a little bit more in their middle starts,” Nieves said. “We’re going to break in gradually and then we’re going to pick it up in the middle, but we’re still going to be able to decelerate in that last start. We think we can get this done.”
Capuano is thrilled to be joining a World Series championship staff. He said at age 35, after two Tommy John surgeries, he’s throwing the best he ever has. He’ll be stretched out as a starter and if someone goes down, he’ll be there to fill in, as he was with the Dodgers last season. Otherwise, he’ll be in the bullpen.
Nieves said Workman will be in a similar situation.
“Brandon has been so valuable to us in whatever role we’ve put him in,” Nieves said. “Long-term, yes, he’s a starter, and we’ll prepare him as one, but we think he can be valuable to us in the bullpen also. We’ll adjust with him as we go along.”
Nieves said he’s hoping that one or two of the younger pitchers take the next leap and present difficult decisions.
“We’re always trying to guess which one of the young guys take that next step,” he said. “Last year it was Workman. This year? Who knows. We can’t wait to find out. We have great young talent, and I know people say, ‘Well, he’s going to be good because he had a great year in Triple A.’ But that doesn’t mean he’s a major leaguer until he comes up here and does it.”
Capuano had a chance to go pitch in Seattle, but as a lifelong Red Sox fan he said coming home was a big reason for his choice.
“I was 8 years old in 1986 when they [Red Sox] lost to the Mets. I can remember being devastated as a kid. Grew up watching the Sox and really followed them. When I was in the backyard playing Wiffle ball with my friends, we’d always imagine ourselves on the mound at Fenway. It’s kind of cool to come back.”
The only time he ever played at Fenway was during a Massachusetts-Connecticut high school all-star game. Capuano recalls he played left field and then pitched a few innings. He was a late-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, but he went to Duke instead.
In 2011, during the Sox’ great September collapse, Theo Epstein tried dealing for Capuano when he pitched for the Mets, but the deal fell through. It was the one time Capuano thought he might be coming home.
“The manager and coaches knew about it ahead of time, but they kept it from [me] until the last minute so it wouldn’t be a distraction and then it didn’t wind up happening,” Capuano said.
Capuano said he is a better pitcher after his second Tommy John surgery in 2008. It took him 10 months to recover from the first one when he was 23, and 18 months to get through the second one in ’08. He missed all of 2008 and 2009, came back in 2010, and finally felt he was completely back in 2011 when he made 31 starts and pitched 186 innings.
More of a finesse pitcher, he feels his velocity gradually has risen from the high 80s to 92 miles per hour when he’s feeling strong. He has a changeup and moves the ball down and away to righthanded hitters, which is why the Red Sox feel he could pitch out of the bullpen.
Nieves said he’s seen a lot of video on Capuano already but will get to know him more in the days ahead. At the moment it may not look like a huge signing, but the fragility of pitching could make it very big.
Nieves handled the staff so well a year ago, and now he’ll oversee a staff that very well could be transitioning from veteran to youth in the months ahead.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.