San Diego Padres starting pitcher Michael King works against a...

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Michael King works against a Colorado Rockies batter during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in San Diego. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

SAN DIEGO — At the time, Michael King felt sadness about no longer being part of an organization he never wanted to leave.

But there was relief, too.

As last December’s winter meetings began in Nashville, the Yankees righthander was front and center in the Yankees' talks with the Padres regarding Juan Soto.

The Yankees knew acquiring one of the sport’s best hitters would be costly, but they tried every which way to hang on to King.

As Aaron Boone put it in December: “In a lot of ways, [we were] trying to keep Michael King out of the deal.”

But the Padres would not budge, and as the winter meetings wound down, it became official: The Yankees brought aboard Soto and reserve outfielder Trent Grisham in exchange for righthanders King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez and catcher Kyle Higashioka.

“It was definitely crazy,” King told Newsday by phone recently. “Obviously, there was so much coverage of the trade talks because of Soto, one of the top players in baseball, being involved and then with all of the New York media . . . I was relieved when it was just done with.”

But that didn’t immediately mitigate the disappointment.

From the time the Yankees acquired King and international signing bonus money from the Marlins for Caleb Smith and Garrett Cooper in November 2017, the righthander — who grew up a Yankees fan in Rhode Island — felt at home in the Bronx. It was where he hoped to build his career as a starting pitcher in the majors, a lifelong ambition that began coming to fruition toward the end of last season when King was inserted full-time into the Yankees' rotation on Aug. 24 and pitched to a 1.88 ERA in eight starts.

“I loved my time there, loved the relationships, my family was close by. It definitely was home for me,” said King, who, when the trade was made Dec. 6, was 10 days away from marrying his longtime girlfriend, Sheila, at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. “It was probably a good couple of days where I was in that sad ‘I’m going to miss all my friends’ [state of mind], and then the change in routine, too. I’m not great with that. It took a second to totally flip into seeing the new opportunity given to me.”

That opportunity was one that, while appearing promising with the Yankees, was not guaranteed. Even with the way King finished the season, he wasn’t assured of a spot in the 2024 rotation. Not with the Yankees, coming off an 82-80 season in 2023, planning to go full-bore after Japanese star righthander Yoshinobu Yamamoto (who wound up turning down the Yankees’ $300 million offer and signing for $325 million with the Dodgers).

The Padres, on the other hand, were shedding payroll (much of their motive for moving Soto, a free agent after this season) and in need of starting pitching. They wanted King for their rotation. Period.

“I had to fight so hard to be a starter,'' King said, "and one of the first conversations I had with [Padres pitching coach Ruben Niebla], he said, ‘You’re our guy. You’re going to get as many innings as possible. We traded Juan Soto for a starting pitcher, and we want you to be that guy.’ ''

King, who turns 29 on Saturday, added: “It was good to hear that. I feel coming into spring training every year with the Yankees, I was wondering if I would start or relieve. It was great to hear that because that’s what I’ve been fighting for all those years.”

King's most recent start came Wednesday in Cincinnati, so he will not face the Yankees in this weekend's series (he said “it would have been fun” to do so).

King, who  still is in touch with former teammates such as Clarke Schmidt, Clay Holmes, Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo, is 4-4 with a 4.28 ERA and has experienced the predictable ups-and-downs of a starter trying to establish himself in the big leagues.

There has been plenty of good — such as when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning April 17 in Milwaukee and  when he struck out 11 in seven scoreless innings on May 10 against the Dodgers — and some bad, such as when he allowed four home runs on April 12 at Dodger Stadium and when he allowed six runs and eight hits on May 15 against the Rockies.

Said King, “It’s definitely a learning curve.” 

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