Nate Karns Still Trying to Figure Out What Rays See in Him

By Robbie Knopf

The Tampa Rays’ first cuts from big league spring training included Alex Colome, Matt Andriese, and Enny Romero, so their fifth starter competition is officially down to four pitchers. Included among those four is Nate Karns. How does that make any sense? Colome, Andriese, and Romero all saw time at Triple-A in 2013 while Karns did not, and Karns’ three major league starts were disasters. Yet Karns is still at least theoretically alive in the race and will actually start today against the Toronto Blue Jays. Even Karns is not sure why the Rays believe so much in him.

The Rays acquired Karns from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Jose Lobaton, Felipe Rivero, and Drew Vettleson. When he heard about who he was traded for, Karns was shocked.

"“I was like, Me? Three for one?” Karns said. “They know who they’re talking about?”"

Andrew Friedman, though, did his best to clear up the confusion.

"“We feel like he’s got a chance to be a really good major league starting pitcher. He’s a big, strong, physical guy. Plus fastball, plus breaking ball, and the changeup really came on for him last year. We think he’s got the size, strength, durability to potentially be a guy that can put 200-plus innings on his body.”"

That is high praise, especially coming from the man that has put together one of the best rotations in baseball season after season. But Karns also comes with his flaws. He is 26 years old, 17 months older than Matt Moore and just one month younger than Alex Cobb. After getting drafted in 2009, Karns did not pitch in 2011 because of shoulder surgery, and he is his work cut out for him as he hopes to make up for the lost time. You can make the argument that the Rays saw Karns as an undervalued asset, an extremely talented pitcher who was overlooked because of his age. But even so, Karns is far from a sure bet to reach his upside and much of the concern centers around his changeup. Friedman remarked that it “really came on,” but Baseball America described it as a below-average pitch that “his feel for…increased marginally.” The Rays are renowned for developing changeups, but just how confident are that they can help Karns?

Karns also needs work on his command Karns pitched extremely well at Double-A in 2013, but his groundball rate was a below-average 41.1% even against younger competition. That was especially exploited in his big league time as he allowed 5 home runs in 12 innings pitched. Will a year at Triple-A be enough to correct those problems? At the end of the day, a realistic worst-case scenario for Karns may be as a high-leverage reliever. He has two excellent pitches in his fastball and changeup and does a good enough job throwing strikes. However, why did the Rays give up three talented players to get someone like that?

In his first spring training with his new organization, Nate Karns has to justify the Rays’ faith in him and prove to himself that he is really that good. The expectations the Rays have for him are certainly quite high–but they wholeheartedly believe that he has the potential to get there. The Rays see something in Karns that was apparent to no one else, not even Karns. It is up to him to be exhilarated by their faith in him and see just how good he can possibly be.