Corey Kluber deserves some credit for Yankees' Juan Soto trade

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers
New York Yankees v Texas Rangers / Ronald Martinez/GettyImages

Sometime between when Corey Kluber was a stoic Cleveland ace and a Red Sox punching bag, he stopped briefly in New York. Most of his time with the Yankees was spent rehabbing; in all, he made 16 starts in 2021, one of them somehow a no-hitter.

While, at the time, it was frustrating to watch him linger rather than participate, it turns out all that downtime might've been more beneficial than the Yankees could've ever known.

Kluber's time with the team in '21 resulted in an unexpected amount of tutoring. One student picked up the Ol' Professor's lessons more than the rest of them: Michael King, whose mind was bent by Kluber's signature breaking ball. In mid-May of the righty's sole year in the Bronx, he reportedly approached King and relayed that he believed the two had plenty in common. Why not share a pitch, too?

"Having a guy like Kluber say that he has confidence in me and thought we were similar pitchers, that gave me the confidence to say, 'This could be an easy pitch to learn.' I’ve gone through six different slider grips and thrown it since I was in college. It’s never been a good pitch for me until Kluber."

Michael King

Corey Kluber retires after giving Michael King confidence, Juan Soto to Yankees

While Kluber has humbly downplayed his role in King's emergence, the version of the right-hander Yankees fans witnessed in 2022 and 2023 was decidedly different than the one who'd come before. Now, King had a wipeout breaking ball to partner with his dotted heater. In '22, he was the most important Jenga piece in the bullpen, a multi-inning eraser who could be used in any role. His July injury in Baltimore, more so than any other moment, derailed the season as a whole.

Wait. Did you say any role? In '23, he went from recovered relief stalwart to September starter, flashing the same swing-and-miss stuff for four, five, six, or seven innings at a time (nice whiffs, Blue Jays). That month of stretched-out action -- made possible by that breaking ball -- eventually allowed the Yankees to spin King off (painfully) as the primary piece in December's blockbuster Juan Soto trade, which never in a million years would've happened if he were still the middle reliever/opener hybrid he'd been in 2021, unable to establish his footing.

Kluber, now retired, recently attended an All Rise Gala for Aaron Judge, flanked by several current and former Yankees. It would definitively be in the team's best interest to bring the stone-faced right-hander to camp this year. After all, following the Soto deal, their pitching depth could use some rebuilding.