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Nate Karns Trying To Show He Is MLB Starter, Not Reliever

By Drew Jenkins

Mar 12, 2014; Dunedin, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Nathan Karns (51) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Rays re-called Nate Karns to take the rotation spot of Drew Smyly, who had hit his innings limit, it was reasonable if you were scratching your head. Karns, acquired from the Washington Nationals last offseason, had a decent reputation as a prospect, but his numbers this season were underwhelming. His 5.08 ERA at Triple-A Durham was the worst among their starting rotation, and he had struggled to find consistency of his command all year. But the reasoning behind giving Karns as shot was simple; the Rays are trying to figure out if he can be a big league starter or if he needs to be converted to relief.

Karns features two plus pitches in his mid-90’s fastball and curveball. But, inconsistent command can cause the pitches to flatten out when thrown up in the zone, and that is where Karns gets himself into trouble. His third pitch is a changeup, but it is well behind the other two pitches. Karns has been working hard to develop it this season though, and the fact that he has used it so much might account for at least part of his inflated ERA. It is because of the command struggles and lack of a quality third pitch that lead some to think Karns is heading to the bullpen. With many young prospects in Karns’ situation there would be hope that they could develop their command and changeup to remain a starter, but at 26 years old Karns is older for a prospect, and that adds another layer of skepticism.

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By allowing Karns to make a few starts at the end of this season, the Rays will get a first-hand look at how effective he can be against big league hitters. He is certainly not the safest option to start games if the Rays a looking to win, but at this point winning isn’t the most important thing. The Rays are out of contention, and as such they can use this time to evaluate Karns instead of going with a safer option like Matt Andriese or Alex Colome. Karns will be entering his age 27 season- commonly considered the middle of a player’s “prime years”. Thus the Rays need to decide sooner rather than later whether Karns’ big league future is in the rotation or in the bullpen.

We will get a look at Nate Karns tonight, as he will make his Rays debut against the Toronto Blue Jays. He still has the potential to be a number two starter thanks to his devastating fastball and curveball, but as an older prospect that has struggled this year there is plenty of skepticism regarding his prognosis. The good news is that the bullpen would be a good fall-back option, as his command issues would be masked, he could ditch his changeup, and his fastball-curveball combo would be even more devastating in shorter stints. We will have to see whether he can do enough in his big league opportunity to prove he can remain a starter, but our questions could very well be answered in coming few weeks.