There have been rumors for a while now that the Tampa Bay Rays will deal a reliever before the trade deadline, with Kevin Jepsen remaining the most likely candidate to go. The Rays talked about Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger with the Houston Astros, but Houston is unlikely to meet the asking price for either pitcher. Of all the names floating, however, Nate Karns is the most interesting. Jeff Passan first noted that the Rays were listening on him, and Chris Cotillo adds that the Giants, Dodgers, and D-Backs have shown interest. It is worthwhile for the Rays to trade him? If they do, what kind of package would they receive in return?
The Rays have starting pitching depth, and with Drew Smyly on a rehab stint, they are set to move a starter to relief or Triple-A once he returns. If the Rays think that they have discovered the root of the problem with Smyly and he will be able to stay healthy for this year and seasons to come, then they certainly have too many starting pitchers both now and moving forward. Smyly isn’t ready yet, but Matt Andriese could take Karns’ spot until Smyly is ready. The Rays could conceivably trade Karns without their playoff hopes missing a beat.
On the other hand, the uncertainty that comes with Smyly, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb puts depth at a premium for the Rays this year and next. It is certainly possible that Moore keeps struggling, and Andriese could be primed to regress as well. There is a good enough chance that one of Moore or Andriese can be effective the rest of the year, but what would happen then if someone else got injured? The Rays would like to avoid the scenario where both Moore and Andriese are starting down the stretch with Blake Snell being the only hope for improvement.
That being said, maybe trading Karns would become more palatable if the Rays are getting a big league piece in return. For an example of a talented but relatively unproven young starter being dealt for a good starting position player, we have to look back no further than this past offseason, when ex-Rays prospect Jesse Hahn (feel free to ask me about him in the comments) was traded along with reliever R.J. Alvarez from the Padres to the Oakland Athletics for starting catcher Derek Norris and pitching prospect Seth Streich.
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The Rays also have a need at catcher, and it would be interesting if they would be willing to use Karns to fill that need. The Giants may no longer be a prime contender for Karns after acquiring Mike Leake, but a hypothetical trade between the Rays and Giants would be Karns and Rene Rivera in exchange for young catcher Andrew Susac, shortstop prospect Christian Arroyo, pitching prospect Kyle Crick, and a lesser prospect like say outfielder/second baseman Hunter Cole. The Rays would be turning Karns into a possible catcher of the future, two prospects who don’t quite rank among the best in baseball but are still very good, and a sleeper to top of it off.
Of course, the way that things like this work is that all Giants fans would say that their team is giving up too much in that trade while Rays fans would want more. The thing to remember, though, is that Karns turns 28 this November–he may not get much better as a pitcher–and he had an ERA over 5.00 at Triple-A last year because of serious walk and homer problems. He is more valuable than a guy like Hahn because he has a better history of durability, but not by as much as you might think because of his age and previous inconsistency.
The Rays are hoping for a crazy offer that goes well beyond what I wrote above, but there is no guarantee that it will come. Considering that they want to be “blown away” and don’t really have a need to trade Karns, that is exactly why Karns is unlikely to be dealt. The Rays want a return worthy of a young topflight pitcher while other teams will offer no more than the package for a controllable number three starter with a chance to be a two. Unless the Rays don’t believe in Karns’ future and want to trade him before his value goes down, it is improbable that they will get an offer to their liking.