Nick Kingham recognizes his career with the Pirates is at a crossroads
Nick Kingham leaned back against a chair in a PNC Park dining area, at ease in chatting with a handful of reporters at PiratesFest late last month.
“I love this right now,” Kingham said of relaxed conversation with a group of people who ranged between casual acquaintance to total stranger. “This is cool.”
Proving how at ease he was, Kingham discussed everything from the Pittsburgh restaurant scene (he’d gone to Vue 412 the day prior) to his fun trash-talking with teammates (exchanging texts with Steven Brault) to how as a Vegas Guy he ended up with an offseason home in Charlotte, N.C.: “I got engaged, and she’s from there. The woman always wins.”
Kingham’s laidback attitude belies the pressure on him during the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training that opens next week. Now 27 years old and out of minor-league options, Kingham’s career is at something of a crossroads.
The former top prospect of the Pirates has an outside shot at winning the No. 5 starter’s job and, if he doesn’t, a better-than-not chance to land a role in the bullpen. But nothing is assured for a player who is entering his 10 th pro season.
“It’s a little bit more like serious,” Kingham said of this particular spring training because of the personal stakes at hand, “because decisions are going to be made. Every pitch is going to be a little bit more scrutinized, I guess. Every outing. I am sure they are going to throw me out there as many times as they can to get as many looks as they can. I think I’ll be a bit more under the microscope.”
If Kingham feels any pressure as such, he doesn’t show it. Perhaps that’s because his career has already been through so much. Once one of the Pirates’ top prospects (he was ranked No. 5 in the organization by Baseball America in 2014), Kingham had a 3.13 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 51 minor-league starts in 2013-14 and was on the cusp of a MLB call-up.
But then major injury struck. The resulting Tommy John surgery set Kingham back, and he didn’t make it to Pittsburgh until last April 29.
“It’s an adversity I had to do that somebody else didn’t,” Kingham said of the elbow surgery and year of rehab. “But others may have to overcome something I’ll never have to experience. So it’s my own story, it’s my own path.”
Kingham’s wait to reach the majors appeared well worth it when he made his debut and it was spectacular: no runs, one hit, no walks, nine strikeouts in seven innings. But Kingham was not very good the remainder of his 2018 rookie season: 5.73 ERA, 1.52 WHIP in MLB while bouncing up and down between Triple-A Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
The Pirates go into this season with a solid top four of their rotation and with Jordan Lyles and Brault joining Kingham as other options for the No. 5 spot. Kingham could fall into a long-relief role, as well.
But if not, with no minor-league options left, if Kingham doesn’t make the opening day roster he could be designated for assignment, his career left in something of a limbo.
“Because last year was such an up and down year, whenever I was (in the majors) I was like, ‘Oh man I am so glad I am here and not in Triple-A,’” Kingham said. “And (this season), it’s more, ‘I need to be (in the majors).’
“It’s real. Not that it puts on pressure, but it’s like ‘Let’s see what you can do. You are going to be given an opportunity; let’s capitalize on it and see now. It’s all up to me.’ So I think it’s either going to kind of make or break me. (Achieving) that next level needs to happen – or something bad is gonna happen. I might be sitting at home.
“But I think it’s going to be cool. It is gonna happen, I am looking forward to it and it’s going to be cool.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.