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Are the Rays Best Off With Nate Karns As Their 5th Starter?

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All offseason, we have presumed that Alex Colome is the heavy favorite to be the Tampa Bay Rays’ fifth starter. There are several reasons to believe that: his tantalizing arsenal, his strong Triple-A results, and the fact that he is out of options and needs to be on the team anyway. If Colome has to be on the active roster and is capable of being a solid major league starting pitcher, the logic follows that he should be starting.

Let’s take a step back, though, and talk about the case for a different Rays prospect, Nate Karns. Would the Rays be better off with him starting and Colome in the bullpen? There is a discussion to be had and let’s go through it now.

One major thing to remember is that the fifth starter spot that the Rays have available will only exist until Matt Moore returns. Moore is talented enough that as soon as he is ready, he will get his job back and the fifth starter will need to go to the bullpen or the minor leagues.

Of course, things often aren’t so simple–an injury to another starter could allow Colome or Karns to keep starting. Last year, the Rays’ great pitching depth collapsed entirely after Moore and Alex Cobb hit the DL. Even so, most likely outcome is that the winner of the Rays fifth starter job will only make a few starts from June until the end of the season.

Given that we are only talking about a starter gig for a couple of months, why don’t the Rays just unleash Colome in the bullpen from the outset of the season? If Colome suddenly needs to shift to relief in June, he will be a long reliever and he may not have enough time to ascend into the late-inning role that he has the ability to fill.

By the way, Colome is also set to be in the Rays’ relief corps in 2016. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Moore, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi will all be under contract, and it would take a trade or a serious injury for Colome to earn a starting role. Both of those are certainly factors to consider, but given Colome’s combination of command problems and durability issues, he may fit best in relief anyway.

Nate Karns has a better history of durability than Colome. He tossed 157.1 innings between Triple-A and the majors in 2014 and 144.2 in 2013. Colome, on the other hand, tossed 120.2 frames last season and that marked his highest total since 2011. We can add in Colome’s 27 additional innings from Winter Ball, but tossing 147.2 innings over the course of a calendar year is far inferior to logging 157.1 in six months.

Colome has also dealt with manifold injury issues. Karns underwent shoulder surgery back in June of 2010 but has managed a clean bill of health since. Colome, meanwhile, dealt with shoulder issues in 2012 and an elbow problems in 2013. Are the Rays really going to risk a DL stint for Colome even though he could dominate with less injury concerns in relief and Karns could take his place in the rotation?

Finally, we have the issue of the Rays’ 40-man roster, which features far too many minor league starters. Aside from Colome and Karns, there are also Matt Andriese, Enny Romero, Mike Montgomery, and even Grayson Garvin. That isn’t an efficient allocation of resources, but the Rays can change that if they are more willing to use their starters in relief. Why add a non-roster player like Ronald Belisario to their 40-man when they have so many options already available?

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At the end of the day, though, the argument for Karns falls short as soon as we look at his Triple-A numbers and their implications. Last season at Durham, Karns managed just a 5.08 ERA in 145.1 IP. His 9.5 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio was great, but his 3.8 BB/9 was the worst among the Bulls’ starters and his 1.0 HR/9 was effectively tied for worst on the staff with Matt Andriese. Karns also showed reasons for worry against lefty hitters, managing just an 84-43 strikeout to walk ratio against them compared to 69-19 versus righties.

Colome, on the other hand, has a 3.43 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 173 career innings at Triple-A. He has also managed nearly identical strikeout to walk ratios against both lefties and righties the last two years. That wouldn’t matter so much if Karns’ stuff was significantly better, but any edge in favor of Karns in that regard is marginal at best.

Nate Karns’ poor stats from 2014 are not flukes either. Karns has been known to have inconsistent command, and he still has not gotten his changeup up to par. While he has the ability to overpower major league hitters for seven innings like he did in his Rays debut on September 12th, there is not sufficient reason to think that he can provide the Rays with a dependable pitcher from start to start.

In response to the other arguments, meanwhile, Alex Colome’s durability and future don’t matter as much as we would think here. Colome doesn’t have to approach 200 innings this year–he just has to hold up as a starter for a few months–so there’s a good chance that his injury issues will come into play. In addition, Alex Torres went from the Rays’ long reliever to a key setup man after arriving to stay in June of 2013, and Colome has the ability to do the same.

The only real case for Karns with some validity is the 40-man roster point, but it doesn’t matter if the Rays have a more efficient roster if they have a poor fifth starter situation. The Rays could decide to put Karns in the bullpen if they so choose–that might work better–but then they would lose the benefit of having him as starting depth. In any event, Karns’ talents would be wasted in a long relief role given that he can be sent to Triple-A for one more year.

Do you have any more arguments for why Nate Karns should be the Tampa Bay Rays’ fifth starter instead of Alex Colome? I would be happy to hear them and respond in the comments. As far as I can tell, though, Colome remains the odds-on favorite for the open rotation spot while Karns will almost surely begin the 2015 season at Triple-A Durham.

Next: Could the Rays Pursue Zack Cozart and Eugenio Suarez?

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