In life as in baseball, we spend so much time thinking about the future. We plan for it, we pin our hopes on it, we look to it to help us get through the often dully unsatisfying present. It’s for this reason that few things break our hearts more than a potential future being taken away. And if you’re a Sox fan of a certain age, there might be one name more than any other that breaks your heart as you contemplate all the futures that didn’t come: Juan Peña.
Juan Peña started all of two games for the Red Sox. But man, those two starts. As a rookie making his Major League debut in 1999, he allowed just 3 hits in 6 innings of work against the Anaheim Angels, striking out Mo Vaughn, Troy Glaus, and Garret Anderson, amongst others. A week later, he threw 7 shutout innings against a Blue Jays lineup that featured prime Shawn Greene and Carlos Delgado. He was 22-years-old, he’d thrown a no-hitter for Pawtucket the year before, and was the next great Red Sox pitcher.
And he would never throw another pitch in the Major Leagues again.
Tendinitis in his right shoulder shut Peña down for the rest of the 1999 season. He arrived healthy at Spring Training in 2000 and appeared locked-in for a rotation spot, only to tear his UCL before the season even began. He underwent Tommy John surgery and and attempted a comeback, but put up an ERA over 5 in 16 starts for Pawtucket in 2022. He would hang around for the next 6 years, spending some time with the Blue Jays and pitching in Mexico, but he would never again come close to pitching the big leagues.
And when news broke of Brayan Bello being shut down with forearm soreness a few weeks back, Juan Peña was the first name that came to my mind.
I really, really wish this wasn’t the case! I wish I could just enjoy Bello for what he is, right here and right now. I wish I could rest easy with the certainty that he’ll be pitching in Fenway for the next 10 years. I wish the specter of injury didn’t linger in the back of my mind with every pitch he throws.
But this is the reality of being a baseball fan in 2023. We’ve spent the better part of the last 30 years trying to figure out how to keep pitchers healthy, and we have utterly failed at it. Any pitcher’s arm can blow up at any moment. We try not to think about this, but it’s always there — the lost future of Juan Peña is always there.
For today, at least, it looks like we can breathe easy about Brayan Bello. While forearm tightness is often the first step on the path towards more serious elbow injuries and, eventually, Tommy John surgery, Bello and the Red Sox have insisted all spring that there was nothing in his arm to be all that concerned about. Yesterday, after an offseason he spent working out with the legendary Pedro Martinez, Bello finally made it back to the mound and showed us why.
Bello pitched two perfect innings in relief against the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies (well, kind of anyway — he didn’t really face any regulars), needing just 25 pitches to do so. He struck out three hitters, all on off speed stuff, while dialing it up to 97 MPH on the fastball. He threw just 7 balls, and generated 4 swinging strikes.
He looked calm, confident, happy to be out there, and, most importantly, healthy. He’s not going to start the year in the rotation, but he’ll find his way in there soon enough. What happens after that, we have no way of knowing.
“With everything I learned last year — added on to everything I learned with Pedro in the offseason,” he said after his outing, “I think it’s going to be a really good year.”
I do, too. Get out of my head, Juan Peña, you’ve overstayed your welcome.