BOSTON — Michael King was persistent. Whenever a starting pitcher would be unavailable, King would pop his head into Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s and pitching coach Matt Blake’s office and remind them of his wishes. He wants to be a starting pitcher.
This was the first season since King joined the Yankees in 2019 that he entered spring training strictly as a relief pitcher with no possibility of building up to starting because he spent his offseason rehabbing from a fractured elbow he sustained last season. For most of this season, the Yankees were overly cautious with how often they used King out of the bullpen because of that injury.
But when the Yankees’ rotation started to crack because of a shoulder injury for Nestor Cortes, a hamstring injury for Carlos Rodón and alcohol rehab for Domingo Germán, the organization started to think about their options — both internally and externally — on who could replace them. Knowing King’s desires and the reality of there not being many choices, the Yankees turned to King.
Since moving to the rotation, King has thrown 21 1/3 innings over five starts and allowed just three runs while striking out 29. Out of all American League pitchers who’ve thrown at least 80 innings this season, King’s 2.77 ERA leads the league.
Michael King’s 2Ks in the 4th. pic.twitter.com/o0YlXQCppL
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2023
Not only has he been one of the team’s lone bright spots this season but he’s turned himself into a legitimate candidate to join the starting rotation in 2024. As of now, the Yankees are planning for that to be the case.
“Technically to be determined, but I think he is,” Boone said on Thursday. “I think we all believe he could be a starter. I think he’s probably in a lot of ways confirming that and what we’re seeing as he’s continued to build up here these last few weeks, I think Michael is in a really good spot in that he’s proven himself at this level obviously out of the bullpen but I think he’s also showing us now that I definitely believe he could be a successful starter. We’ll see where the next few weeks takes us. We’ll see where the winter takes us and how we look going into next season. Right now, I think he’s put himself in that starter mix.”
In Thursday afternoon’s start, King threw 87 pitches. Blake said it’s possible King could end up reaching 100 pitches by the end of the season. A positive the Yankees feel like they’ve discovered with King in this new role is they believe he’s recovering better in between outings as opposed to his multi-inning role out of the bullpen.
“I think the big thing we’ve looked at is how he’s responded to the higher volume outings versus the shorter duration, quicker turnaround outings and it seems like he manages the rhythm of the routine better and the recovery when he has three, four, five days instead of the pitch back-to-back, pitch and one day off, I think those are harder on him. We’ve found a way to kind of get a better rhythm of the two on, two off, three on, three off and obviously as he’s built his pitch count, he’s more in the five-day routine and he seems to be responding which is encouraging.”
Michael King’s 7th and 8th Ks. pic.twitter.com/JdKsa9jbTS
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2023
One benefit of having King develop into a starter for 2024 is his contract. He’s making just $1.3 million this season and will get a raise in the offseason either through arbitration or through settling with the Yankees prior to reaching that process. The Yankees will need to add starting pitching depth this offseason as the expectation is the team will move on from Luis Severino, an impending free agent. Frankie Montas, who will not pitch this season, will also be a free agent. Germán is under team control but he’s a non-tender candidate after leaving the team under unceremonious terms.
There’s still some uncertainty in those returning, too. Cortes, who’s expected to start a throwing program in the coming weeks, has sustained two shoulder injuries this season. The expectation right now is Cortes will not need offseason surgery. Clarke Schmidt has already thrown a career-high in innings this season and has a history of arm problems. The Yankees have depth in Randy Vásquez and Jhony Brito but King is higher on the trust tree than both of them. King’s emergence is important for a team that not only has to add offense this offseason but pitching, too. If he can stick as a starter, it’s one fewer area where they may need to add via trade or free agency.
“It’s really valuable,” Blake said. “It’s huge if we can create some in-house flexibility with our roles and our rotation. Obviously, major-league starters are hard to come by so if you have someone internally that can enter that role, there’s a lot of value in being able to do that. One thing that I think we’ve seemed to be able to do is find a lot of relievers out there in untraditional ways and have success with them. If we can create more starters in-house, that provides more flexibility to backfill him in the bullpen.”
King entering the offseason as a potential starter won’t preclude the Yankees from possibly spending nine figures on another starter in Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whom the team has scouted heavily, including sending general manager Brian Cashman, senior advisor Omar Minaya and pro scouting director Matt Daley to Japan. Vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring is expected in Japan this Saturday for Yamamoto’s start, a team source said. The Yankees’ interest in the 25-year-old starter is very serious, but there will be fierce competition to land one of the best overall players on the market.
But no matter if the Yankees end up signing Yamamoto or add another high-caliber starter, Blake said the plan is to get through the final few weeks of the season and reassess with the front office to officially decide on whether or not King’s offseason program will focus on preparing to be a starter for 2024. As of now, King’s focus is set on taking the ball every fifth day.
“I think I’ll definitely build up and be ready to come in and compete for a starting role,” King said.
(Photo of Michael King: Eric Canha / USA Today)