Washington Nationals rookie right-hander Nate Karns made his major league debut earlier this week against the Baltimore Orioles, and is scheduled to make another start this Sunday. Karns did not take a traditional path to the major leagues, but he's certainly an interesting case study and is our choice for Friday's Minor League Ball Prospect of the Day.
Karns was well-known to scouts growing up in the Arlington, Texas high school ranks, but his college career was erratic due to command problems. Drafted in the 12th round in 2009 out of Texas Tech and signed for an above-slot $225,000 bonus, he tore his labrum shortly after signing and missed all of 2010 recovering. He began to put things back together in 2011, showing good stuff in the New York-Penn League and posting a 3.44 ERA in 37 innings for Auburn, with 33 strikeouts, but he walked 27 and was hardly on any hot prospect lists entering 2012.
He began the season with 44 innings for Hagerstown in the Low-A South Atlantic League, posting a 61/21 K/BB with a 2.03 ERA and allowing just 23 hits and one homer. Promoted to High-A Potomac, he pitched another 72 innings with a 2.26 ERA, an 87/26 K/BB, and a mere 47 hits with one homer allowed. He led all the minor leagues by holding opponents to a .174 average last season.
The question for 2013: could he repeat this against better competition?
He made nine starts for Double-A Harrisburg before his promotion, posting a 4.60 ERA in 45 innings with 41 hits allowed. Note that Double-A hitters could actually hit him sometimes whereas A-ball hitters couldn't. He did collect his share of strikeouts this spring with a 55/18 K/BB ratio. He threw 4.1 innings in his big league debut, giving up five hits and three runs, walking two and fanning three.
Karns is a 6-5, 230 pound right-hander born November 25, 1987. The labrum injury didn't cost him arm strength and he gets his fastball as high as 96 MPH, usually averaging 93-94. The fastball sinks and hitters in the low minors couldn't loft it for distance, though more advanced hitters in Double-A and the majors have had less trouble. His second pitch is a power curveball thrown in the mid-80s, overpowering when it is on. He has a changeup but it is inconsistent and he is still learning to trust it.
Karns doesn't always repeat his delivery perfectly and his command still waivers at times. Some scouts see him as a future reliever if he doesn't refine his changeup further or if command wobbles become too problematic, but the Nationals want to give him every opportunity to start.
Personally I think he's being rushed a bit and additional development time would be helpful, but his stuff is certainly impressive. Overall, he's come a long way for a guy who was an injury reclamation project two years ago.