Nate Karns Hopes To Prove Rays, Nationals Right


Be a baseball fan for a few years and it becomes apparent that a mid-90’s fastball can make up for a lot of things. Pitchers can have control issues, injury problems, or be coming off terrible years, but if they have electric arsenals, they will keep getting chances. Usually, though, the circumstances aren’t as extreme as they have been with Nate Karns. Despite roadblock after roadblock, the Washington Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays have never lost their faith in Nate Karns.

Karns managed just a 6.90 ERA in his two years at Texas Tech, yet the Nationals not only selected him in the 12th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, but also signed him to an above-slot $225,000 bonus. He underwent shoulder surgery that prevented him from making his pro debut in 2011. By then, he was already 23 years of age, yet he still walked 6.6 batters against competition nearly two years younger at Short Season-A.

It isn’t remarkable that the Nationals kept Karns in their organization for 2012. It isn’t difficult to find a low-minors roster spot for a player they wanted to continue taking a flier on. What was remarkable, though, was that they kept him as a starter. They did have their doubts, and they did start him in a relief role at Low-A Hagerstown. After he succeeded in his first 20 innings, however, posting a 1.35 ERA and a 33-12 strikeout to walk ratio, they did something crazy.

Why is Nate Karns a starting pitcher right now? It really makes so little sense. When you have a player who is older than the league average and has injury issues, the obvious thing to do is to fast-track him to the major leagues in a relief role if he has the stuff to handle such an assignment. Instead, the Nationals looked at his arsenal and ignored his age as they converted him back into a starter. Five starts later, he moved up to High-A Potomac, and he hasn’t relieved at any level since.

In 2013, Karns was off to a decent start at Double-A Harrisburg. Take away his two worst starts, and he had a 2.41 ERA and a 52-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 41 innings pitched. Those two outings we’re ignoring, though, were quite bad, ballooning his ERA on the season to 4.60. He also had done quite poorly in his previous three starts, managing just an 8.76 ERA.

Karns wasn’t doing nearly as badly as those last two ERAs would indicate, but we would expect his parent club to give him a few more outings to get comfortable and improve his numbers before they would consider promoting him a level. Karns’ numbers certainly weren’t forcing the Nationals’ hand. Of course, sometimes a promotion has to do with a player, and at other times, it has to do with his team.

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Exactly then, the Nationals called up Karns to the major leagues after a grand total of nine starts above A-ball. They had other options, specifically veterans Chris Young and Ross Ohlendorf at Triple-A, but Karns was their choice instead. Maybe that isn’t as profound as I’m making it out to be–Young was struggling at Triple-A while Ohlendorf wasn’t available because he had just started. If Karns wasn’t the Nats’ preference, though, then why did he make three starts before being demoted and not just one?

The maneuver didn’t work out, but clearly Washington believed in Nate Karns more than his age and experience should have indicated. And even if his big league stint went poorly, Karns managed a 2.57 ERA and a 100-29 strikeout to walk ratio in 87.2 innings the remainder of the season at Harrisburg. We know that Karns was pitching well aside from those two rough starts before his call-up, but the Nats can tell themselves that his brief big league stint gave him additional confidence in himself.

Then, following the season, the Nationals traded Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays, but it was no indictment of his abilities. We first heard about the presence of Jose Lobaton and Karns in the trade, but it turned out that the Rays were sending Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson to Washington as well. It took a backup catcher coming off a strong season, a talented lefty arm, and a former supplemental first rounder for the Nats to part with Nate Karns.

Washington had enough starting depth that they didn’t need Karns, and they managed to get good value for him. The Rays were willing to pay such a price for him, though, because their belief was just as strong. They saw him as not just the potential late-inning reliever that scouts were calling him, but a legitimate number three starter and maybe more. He was type of talent worth giving up three interesting players to acquire.

Then Karns’ first season in the Rays system began and went quite poorly. He had his moments, but his up-and-down year concluded with a 5.08 ERA in 27 starts. Of course, the Rays weren’t too discouraged as they called up for a pair of outings in September. His first start featured seven dominant innings against the Toronto Blue Jays while his second was a disaster.

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What do the Rays think of Nate Karns now? Are they willing to overlook his poor results at Triple-A last season because of his arsenal? Do they believe that he is a better option for their rotation than Alex Colome? We were hoping to get insight into those question this spring, but that never happened. Thanks to Colome’s visa issues and pneumonia along with the Rays’ other starting pitcher injuries, Karns has become a lock for the Rays’ rotation no matter how the team evaluates him.

Given how Karns’ story has progressed to this point, it would have been more fitting if he won the Rays’ fifth starter spot over Colome in controversial fashion. The Nationals and Rays have believed in him more than any reasonable team would have, and his place on the Rays’ roster would be just another instance of that. Instead, the onus has shifted away from the Rays and onto Karns.

It is improbable that Nate Karns has gotten to this point as a 27 year old with five major league games under his belt. Either he should have flamed out or become a big league reliever by now. However, given that this is the way his career has turned out, what will Karns make of it? Will he become an effective starter and make the wait worthwhile or will he move to relief and make the Nationals and Rays wonder what they were thinking?

A lot of people have believed in Nate Karns over the years, and they will be all watching as he prepares for what could be his first full season in the major leagues if he succeeds. Karns’ fastball and curveball looked as good as ever this spring, and as has always been the case with Karns, the Rays hope that his impressive arsenal will be enough.

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