Minor League Prospect Report: Nathan Karns, RHP, Washington Nationals
A year ago, Washington Nationals right-hander Nathan Karns was an anonymous A-ball pitcher trying to make his way back from a serious injury. Now, after an excellent 2012 campaign, he is one of Washington's best prospects and a pitcher to watch closely in 2013.
Karns began his college career at North Carolina State with a decent freshman year in 2007 (2.67 ERA, 24/17 K/BB in 30 innings). He transferred to Texas Tech for 2008 and was supposed to be a mainstay in the rotation, but he struggled with his command and posted an 8.46 ERA with a 48/39 K/BB in 50 innings.
He gained the notice of scouts with excellent pitching in the '08 Cape Cod League, and was expected to go somewhere in the third round vicinity in '09. However, he continued to have control problems that spring, posting a 5.47 ERA with a 57/30 K/BB in 54 innings. Scouts also felt he was an injury risk, and he fell to the 12th round in the draft.
It took above-slot money to sign him ($225,000), and the Nationals didn't get a quick return in their investment: he needed labrum surgery, and missed all of 2010 recovering. He returned in 2011, posting a 3.44 ERA but with an unattractive 33/27 K/BB ratio in 37 innings for Auburn in the New York-Penn League.
Karns entered '12 as a serious question-mark, but he exits it as one of Washington's best prospects. He began the year with Hagerstown in the Low-A South Atlantic League, posting a 2.03 ERA with a 61/21 K/BB, allowing just 23 hits in 44.1 innings. Clearly too good for the level, he moved up to High-A Potomac in the Carolina League in June and continued to pitch well, posting a 2.26 ERA with an 87/26 K/BB.
Overall this season, Karns went 11-4, 2.17 ERA with a 148/47 K/BB in 116 innings, with just 70 hits allowed. He held opposing hitters to a mere .174 average, the best mark of any starting pitcher in the full-season minors.
Karns is a 6-5, 230 pound right-hander, born November 25, 1987. He is old for A-ball at age 24, but considering the circumstances, that's understandable, and age-relative-to-league is less important for pitchers than for hitters. His K/IP ratio is tremendous, and he showed better command than anticipated, especially for a guy with a history of control problems who was shaking off injury rust. The improved control is attributed to mechanical refinements.
Stuff-wise, he features a 90-95 MPH sinking fastball. His second pitch is a power curve, also a solid offering. He keeps the ball down and has given up just three homers in his professional career. Karns' changeup is still in the developmental stages. Many scouts see him as a reliever, but I think it makes sense to keep starting him to see if the changeup develops further.
Karns will move up to Double-A for 2013. If everything goes right, we could see him sometime late next year or in 2014.