When the Marlins hired Juan Nieves as their new pitching coach in December, the news kind of slipped under the radar.
Understandable when your next hire was Barry Bonds.
While it didn’t get the immense attention of the Marlins’ other offseason coaching additions, Nieves’ presence might turn out to be one of the most valuable to the team this season.
“[Nieves] brings the experience you want in a pitching coach, but also optimism and his preparation,” said Marlins left-hander Craig Breslow, who pitched for the Red Sox while Nieves was there and is competing this spring for a bullpen spot.
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Nieves came over from Boston after spending two-plus seasons in the same role with the Red Sox.
During that stint Nieves turned a pitching staff that had a dismal 5.19 team ERA before his arrival into a cohesive unit that lowered that number to 3.79 and helped Boston win the 2013 World Series.
The Marlins, who had a 4.02 team ERA last season, will be the first National League team on which Nieves has coached.
“Early on there was a lot of talk about [bringing in] Rick Honeycutt [as our pitching coach], but he went back out to [Los Angeles],” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
“So many names bounce around in this game of baseball, but what’s funny is when Juan’s name came up, he was mentioned before others by a lot of people. It was pretty easy once I talked to him about it and it felt really good.”
Nieves, 51, has been coaching since 1992 when he got his start with the Yankees as a minor-league instructor.
After spending nearly a decade in the same role with the White Sox, he became that club’s bullpen coach for five seasons prior to joining the Red Sox following the 2012 season.
“It’s a good group of players on this team, and I know a few of them, but it will take time to get to know each other,” Nieves said. “The biggest thing on the first day is to get them to control their energy and emotions.
“Usually the biggest challenge is convincing the young kids to trust what they have. They’re here because of what they have. We have some good veterans that can be good stabilizers for the young kids.”
Nieves still has two prestigious distinctions from his playing career.
He is the only Milwaukee Brewers pitcher to throw a no-hitter (1987) and is one of two Puerto Rican-born pitchers along with Jonathan Sanchez (2009) to throw a no-hitter in the majors.
But Nieves’ career was cut short by a series of shoulder problems that forced him to retire after only three seasons in the majors.
Nieves will work with one of baseball’s rising stars this season in Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, who is working his way back from injuries himself, including Tommy John surgery.
“The challenge for Jose and me is to ensure his pitching longevity,” Nieves said.
“Staying healthy for a long period of time is so important. Our biggest challenge for him aside from wanting him to have as many wins as possible is to have him standing on the mound on the final day of the season and feeling healthy, not grinding through it. We want him throwing the ball easy and being able to command the baseball.”
Nieves was seen Friday working individually with several of the Marlins’ pitchers on the first day of workouts for them and catchers.
Breslow said his disposition and willingness to help pitchers try to improve from beyond just mechanics and technique is something that he thinks will build a good relationship between him and the roster.
“He’s in a great mood every day, and he’s genuinely invested in improving everybody that he can,” Breslow said. “That’s a quality that’s pretty rare. He’s legitimately looking to help guys make improvements.”