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The Yankees are leaning on their options in the ‘pen, for better or worse

Michael King and Deivi García haven’t had long stays in the clubhouse this season, and it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Yankees are dealing with a lot of variables in the early going of this season. Their lineup fluctuates from stagnant and staring at pitches down the middle of the plate to crushing balls out of the park. The starters outside of Gerrit Cole have struggled to even catch a glimpse of the sixth inning often enough. The one constant has been the great success of the bullpen, but even in that camp there is something to worry about.

The relief corps is being asked to pitch a ton of innings. Extended to a full season at the rate they’re being used, any bullpen would be worn down by this level of usage. Obviously, there’s plenty of time for the starters to get settled down and start going deeper into games — and early pitch counts are definitely a factor into how they’ve been getting handled by Aaron Boone — but the Yankees have been proactive in making sure that the arms on hand for getting through the middle innings of games are fresh and ready to go. Most of the relievers on the roster are out of options, so they’ve utilized the few interchangeable pieces that they have.

There are a few candidates for this level of roster management. Nick Nelson made the Opening Day roster and has made multiple appearances before being sent down to Scranton, but his demotion feels more linked to looking ineffective in his outings rather than tactically being brought down for a spell. Yesterday, the Yankees traded for Wandy Peralta from the Giants, and he carries an option — meaning he could be getting picked up for depth in this regard — but we won’t know how the Yankees want to use him until he joins the team. More than anyone else, this dynamic affects Michael King and Deivi García.

King has been the Yankees’ stopgap reliever this season, stepping in when a starter was lifted after a particularly short outing and emptying the tank to preserve as many innings as possible for the ‘pen. He’s done this once by accident and once on purpose — he followed Nelson as an opener/bulk reliever combo — and both times he’s been sent down afterwards to get a fresh arm up. As soon as the 10-day restriction on promoting a demoted player ends, King has found himself right back in the locker room. García is a slightly different case, making it up to the majors for the first time on Monday as a spot starter after staying in sync with the rotation turns down in the alternate training site.

Both King and García are high-risers that flew through the minors in a single season and showcased promise as starters. King’s arrival was stunted by injury, forcing him to make a name for himself in the ‘pen while García has been afforded the luxury of continuing his development as a starter. It’s this distinction that has seemingly been critical to the Yankees’ plans so far this year — managing the risk of development time against the need for capable arms soaking innings right now. King’s premium pass on the Scranton Shuttle through lengthy singular outings indicates that while the Yankees haven’t given up on his potential to be a starter by keeping him stretched out, they would be comfortable with King settling in this role and becoming an integral part of the ‘pen.

The same can’t be said for García yet, who has ranked as the Yankees’ top pitching prospect across most prospect rankings. García was in a spring training competition that went down to the wire for a starting gig, and yet the team was willing to let him stay down at the alternate site for weeks while the starters struggled — including Domingo Germán, the player who ultimately won the spring competition. The team’s hand was forced on Monday, and García made his season debut, the first of probably a handful of outings he could find this year in pinstripes. It was only a spot start, however, and he was right back down afterwards.

It may not be as strict of a schedule as King is on, but García’s 2021 season figures to play out in a similar fashion. He’ll mirror the big-league rotation as closely as possible, staying available whenever the bottom of the rotation comes around in case he’s needed in the Bronx, and unless injuries complicate matters, he’ll be back down again after he does his job of keeping the gears moving. This deference to giving García consistent starts should in theory benefit his progression, though bouncing between facing Triple-A bats and suddenly standing in against MLB players may produce some jarring results.

These are the kinds of gambles that the Yankees have to work with if they want to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in. If the pitching staff begins to falter, they may be forced to make the difficult decision to shift García into King’s role, and make King a more permanent member of the roster. It seems like the team would be hesitant to do this, especially with the complete unknown of what they’ll get out of Luis Severino this season. Severino’s last attempt to return midseason went sideways fast, and he only ended up giving them 12 innings — all in September — when he was supposed to be the equivalent of a deadline addition. García’s viability as a stand-in for the rotation is vital to the team’s depth, but his MLB-ready arm may be too tempting to not enable in a smaller capacity.