BLUF: Burly right-hander finally has health and two plus pitches that should get him to MLB.
The Player: Nate Karns (RHP, Washington Nationals) – Karns was a 12th round pick in 2009 and signed for $225,000 after performing well in the summer. He missed the rest of that season and all of 2010 after having surgery to repair a torn labrum, and then came back with a solid showing in 56 innings across two levels in 2011. Sent to Low-A Hagerstown to start 2012, Karns posted a 2.03 ERA in 44 innings, walking 21 batters and striking out another 61 hitters. He was quickly promoted to High-A where he made 13 starts for Potomac and finished the year with a 2.26 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning.
Basis of Report: Compilation – Personal Observation (NYPL 2011), Industry Contacts
Body (6-5, 230): Burly, physical righty w/ plenty of strength and power in his frame. Pretty well maxed out and not much room for physical gains at this point.
Delivery/Mechanics: Lacks the loose, easy delivery you like to see with starters but has toned things down since his collegiate days. Maintains balance through the windup and has good extension. Lacks serious arm quickness and arm can lag at times, forcing him to lose his line to the plate and his timing to be off. Mechanics may work better in short bursts but have a chance to work as a starter. Will have to prove it.
Fastball (FB) Velocity (Wind-up): High – 96, Low – 90, Average 92-93, Grade – 60/60
Fastball (FB) Velocity (Stretch): High – 95, Low 91, Average 92-93, Grade – 60/60
Fastball (FB) Movement: Might as well be throwing a bowling ball. Very heavy pitch with good sink that is accentuated by a steep angle from his large frame and long arms. Four-seam shows life, allowing him to pitch up when he wants to, but will flatten out when he overthrows. Overall plus movement that is difficult to barrel. Grade – 60/60
Overall Fastball: Easy plus pitch. Combination of velocity, movement and leverage make the pitch difficult for hitters to handle. Lack of command can hold pitch back at times but has overcome that thus far. Very little FB projection remaining. Grade – 60/60
Curveball (CB): Potential put-away pitch. Arguably his best pitch right now and going forward. Tight spin and hard, overhand break. Pitch falls off the table when on. Really good downer CB that can miss bats. Lacks consistent ability to throw for strikes but works well as a chase pitch. Needs to get a little finer with it to help it play at max level. Above-average present grade is easy and plus isn’t out of the question. Should be plus long term. Grade – 50/60
Change-up (CH): Well below-average pitch that needs a lot of work. Lacks feel. Often too firm and when he tries to soften it, the arm action and overall delivery of the pitch becomes deliberate and gives it away. Needs a lot of work and is tough to project much improvement. Not a believer. Grade – 30/30
Control: Struggles to throw strikes at times. With mechanical improvements, control has evolved to below-average level. In ability to keep his arm up with the lower half causes him to miss up a lot. Needs to pitch down for FB and CB to have maximum effectiveness. Potential for average control if he can continue to make strides with delivery and consistent release point and line. Needs innings to refine delivery and should start to get those in 2012. Grade – 40/50
Command: Difficult to project command improvements beyond below-average level. More of a thrower than a pitcher and the target right now is to throw strikes, not necessarily quality strikes. Well below-average command at present, likely below-average long term. May hold him back from long term starter profile. Grade – 30/40
Summation: Fastball-curveball combination could play extremely well at the big league level. Both are plus pitches in the end. FB is already there and CB isn’t far behind. Needs to gain feel for throwing CB with multiple effects, including finishing it in the zone and as a chase pitch. Higher levels will test ability to mix FB and CB to maximum extent. Change-up is not reliable at present and the current lack of feel makes positive projection difficult. Likely to always be a below-average pitch that may not even reach “show-me” status. Control and command lag behind, partly because of missed innings and partly because of delivery/mechanics. CH and control/command profile make me hedge on starter profile. Could succeed as a #4 on the back of the FB-CB combo, or could move to late-inning relief role where the lack of a third pitch and marginal C&C can work. Big league profile isn’t in question, just a matter of the role.
Relative Risk: High. Advanced age given his professional track record, combined with injury history and a lack of experience at the higher levels, leaves him with elevated risk. A significant amount of risk could be mitigated this season with a strong showing.
Future: The Nationals will tests Karns at the Double-A and possibly Triple-A levels in 2013. The stuff should play, though possibly not at the dominating levels it showed at in A-ball. Has the physical frame and two plus pitches to succeed as an inning-eating rotation option. Fallback is the late innings.