When Tampa Bay Rays fans heard that the trade was going to be catcher Jose Lobaton to the Washington Nationals for right-hander Nate Karns, they were elated. After all, Lobaton was a catcher with no place on the team while Karns was a promising right-hander with a mid-90′s fastball and a devastating curveball. Then the details continued to trickle in. As it turned out, the Rays not only gave up Lobaton but also lefty Felipe Rivero and outfielder Drew Vettleson, both prospects with potential of their own. Maybe the Rays are still going to win the trade, but it is not exactly one of Andrew Friedman’s signature deals. The Rays were taking on the risk that Karns developed as expected and that Rivero and Vettleson never reached their upside. So why did the Rays do the trade? We are finding that out right now.
On the same night that Erik Bedard went 3.2 disappointing innings in his start for the Rays, Nate Karns dominated at Triple-A Durham, tossing 7 innings of 2-hit ball, striking out 9 while walking 1. His early results at Triple-A have been quite inconsistent–he has just a 5.59 ERA and a 26-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 19.1 innings overall–but he has been unhittable in his last two starts, managing a 0.75 ERA with a 16-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 12 innings pitched. Despite being 26 years old, Karns still has very little experience above Double-A. He made three spot-starts for the Nationals in May of 2013 and these four starts in Durham. Ideally, the Rays would like to keep him at Triple-A for another month of so. But right now, they do not have that luxury. Karns is a right-hander with dominant stuff capable of contributing right now while the Rays’ major league options like Bedard and Cesar Ramos impress no one. The Rays are not asking Karns to establish himself as a topflight starter immediately–all they need is a few decent starts, and Karns is capable of giving them that. The Nationals were willing to call up Karns from Double-A last year, and an additional year of development has raised his profile considerably since then. Karns is capable of holding his own at the major league level and it is time to give him his chance.
All the stars are aligning for Nate Karns right now. He is pitching well right when the Rays’ starting rotation is struggling the most and he happened to start the same day that Bedard did. If the Rays don’t give him a shot now, why in the world did they trade for him? Each of the past few years, a Rays pitching prospect has made several critical spot-starts when injuries created an opening in the rotation. It was Jeremy Hellickson in 2010, Alex Cobb in 2011, Chris Archer in 2012, and Jake Odorizzi in 2013, and the moment the Rays acquired Karns, he became next in line. The Tampa Bay Rays clearly think highly of Nate Karns, and this coming Thursday, he will receive the opportunity to show everyone why.