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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fresh starts: Seth Lugo, Michael King show value in move from long relief to rotation

Seth Lugo, then a New York Mets reliever just called up from the minors, is seen in the bullpen before a game against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field in Queens, July 1, 2016. Now 34, Lugo proved himself as a starter for the San Diego Padres last season, and after opting out of that deal, signed for three years and $45 million with the Kansas City Royals. (Santiago Mejia/The New York Times)

By Tyler Kepner / The Athletic

You’ve made it to the top of your industry. The pay is great, but some co-workers make several times more than others. Generational wealth. You don’t have long to get it, though, and a lot depends on the role your company assigns you.

You would strive for a promotion. But the company’s success depends on dozens of people performing specific, sometimes thankless duties. You do not want to disrupt the delicate organizational structure. But if you do not advocate for yourself, who will?

Welcome to the world of the multiple-inning MLB relief pitcher.

At the San Diego Padres’ training camp, Michael King is enjoying his new life as a midrotation starter, behind Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. He is essentially replacing Seth Lugo, who is enjoying his new life, 8 miles down Bell Road in Surprise, Arizona, with the Kansas City Royals.

Lugo made 26 starts for San Diego last season with a 3.57 ERA. His ERA+, according to Baseball Reference, was 115 — that is, 15% better than the league average. That’s exactly what it was in his first seven seasons for the New York Mets, almost all of it as a reliever.

His Mets career earned Lugo a two-year, $15 million contract in free agency with the Padres. He proved himself as a starter, opted out of the deal, and got three years and $45 million from the Royals. One season, three times the guarantee.

“Last year in free agency, there were less than five teams that considered me as a starter — and this offseason, there were close to 20,” Lugo said before a recent practice. “Teams respect me as a starter now, so that’s a good feeling.”

Only two Royals have richer guaranteed deals than Lugo’s: Salvador Pérez, an eight-time All-Star catcher, and Bobby Witt Jr., a young cornerstone shortstop. Lugo has a corner locker with an open stall adjoining it, a telltale status symbol in every MLB clubhouse. At 34, he is finally part of a team’s core.

“He throws a ton of strikes; he’s an efficient guy on the mound; he’s got four pitches; he’s ultracompetitive, pretty unflappable,” Royals manager Matt Quatraro said. “He’s resilient, and more than anything, he’s motivated to prove that last year was not just a one-off and he wants to be a good starter long-term.”

That’s also the goal for King, who was a part of the Padres’ five-player haul in their Juan Soto trade with the New York Yankees. Through King’s age-28 season, the most similar pitcher in MLB history — again, according to Baseball Reference — is Lugo. The two made themselves so valuable as relievers that starting had to wait.

King had hoped to build himself up as a starter in his recovery from a fractured elbow in 2022. When he made his case to the Yankees, he said, bullpen coach Mike Harkey crystallized the problem.

“Listen, I think with your stuff and your demeanor, you can be a top-five, top-10 reliever in the game,” Harkey told him, in King’s recollection. “I don’t know if you could be a top-100 starter in the game, because you haven’t started.”

It made sense. But then Harkey proved King’s point.

“He went on to say that, like, the 10th-best reliever probably makes the same amount of money as the 100th-best starter,” King said.

Harkey’s guess was uncannily accurate. Last season, King appeared more often in the seventh inning than in any other inning. According to Spotrac, MLB’s 10th-highest-paid seventh-inning reliever (the San Francisco Giants’ Tyler Rogers) will earn $3.2 million in 2024. The 100th-highest-paid starter (the Cincinnati Reds’ Hunter Greene) will earn $3.3 million.

King, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2025 season, is earning $3.15 million this season. But his performance as a starter late last year improved his future earning power. King had a 2.23 ERA in nine starts, with 51 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings.

“His breaking ball is good, his fastball has a lot of life to it, he’s throwing it where he wants to,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “Love his tempo of what he’s doing. He’s in control. He’s really attacking with all his pitches.”

King started at Boston College and in the minors, but he sees now that his repertoire was lacking. He would carefully navigate the top of the order, where the future big leaguers hit, then dominate the fringier prospects with his sinker.

Over time, King learned a sweeping slider and gained better change-up command. The Yankees kept him in the bullpen last season, though, as a protective measure. After elbow surgery, it seemed unwise to jump from 51 innings in 2022 to, say, 150 innings in 2023. King said he appreciated their caution and the opportunity to start down the stretch.

Lugo’s high-spinning curveball has always been elite. He started in 26 of his first 36 major league appearances for the Mets, who came to rely on him as a long reliever and setup man after that. Through experience — and a year with the Padres’ pitching coach, Ruben Niebla — Lugo is better equipped now to handle the mental side of starting.

“When you have a bad start and have to sit around for four or five days, it’s easier now,” Lugo said. “When I was younger, those would build up, and now I’m pitching kind of nervously, shying away from the zone, trying to be a little finer because I got hit around.

“Now, after a bad start, I know exactly what to work on. And as a reliever, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s like, ‘Well, you’re going out there tomorrow, hope it works.’”

To Lugo, the transition to starting was not about money. If he had gotten a more lucrative offer to pitch in relief, he said, he would have rejected it.

“The biggest thing for me is: How am I going to be happy playing baseball for hopefully another five, six years?” Lugo said. “It would be as a starter.”

Quality middle relievers can be rich. But reliable starters can be wealthy. Two pitchers on Bell Road changed their identities before it was too late.

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