On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays designated Heath Bell for assignment and Nate Karns was called-up from Triple-A Durham in an effort to give the bullpen some rest. Karns did not pitch in the game, and was subsequently sent back to Durham afterwards in order to continue his development as a starting pitcher. While Karns is a starter for now, though, he is not guaranteed to stay in that role moving forward. Does his bullpen callup foreshadow where his future lies?
The Rays acquired Nate Karns last offseason in exchange for catcher Jose Lobaton plus solid prospects Drew Vettleson and Felipe Rivero. The Rays value him as a starter–otherwise they would not have given up so much to get him. But just because the Rays believe that he can be a starter does not necessarily mean he will become one. Karns has an above-average fastball that sits in the 91-96 MPH range and can hit 98 on occasion. His best pitch is hard curveball that he throws in the 82-84 MPH range. He can throw the pitch for strikes or use it as an out pitch, and it is almost unhittable when he commands it well. He has a third pitch in his changeup, but it is well below average, and that has to change for him to remain a starter. Generally, you would expect the Rays to do a good job of developing a Karns’ changeup, as they are one of the best in the business at doing so. But at 26 years old, Karns is not getting any younger, and he has limited time left to learn how to throw the pitch. Couple the changeup issues with inconsistency in his command, and Karns has two major improvements he needs to make in a limited amount of time. There is a real chance that he will never make the strides necessary for him to remain a starter.
The Rays future logjam at pitcher might also keep Karns from starting, even if he does prove himself capable. The Rays currently have five starting pitchers in Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jake Odorizzi controllable through at least 2016. That doesn’t even take into account other top prospects such as Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Grayson Garvin who all could be ready for a big league starting job during that time frame. In addition, David Price is likely to be traded this offseason (though we did say that last year as well), and any deal involving him could back even more near big league-ready pitching prospects. Rather than hold him back as a starter in Triple-A for the next couple of years, the Rays could elect to send him to the big league bullpen, where he has closer potential in the big leagues thanks to his two outstanding power pitches. As a 26 year old, his peak years are coming on quickly, and the Rays are not going to want him to waste those years in the minors.
In the end, it is probably about 50-50 that Karns remains a starter. The Rays will continue developing him as a starter, but his time is running out and his callup just might go down as his first day in his long-term role. The good news for the Rays is that he has the potential to be among the league’s best relievers, not a bad backup plan to starting if you ask me. Nate Karns will be an important part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ future, and we will just have to wait and see exactly how he fits in.