Nate Karns got a taste of the big leagues last season and held his own. The 6-foot-3, 230-lb. Karns did a nice job building off a very successful 2012 season by pitching well again last season.
Karns went 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 23 starts for Double-A Harrisburg. His final numbers in his three major league starts - 0-1 with a 7.50 ERA - don't jump out, but he kept the Nationals in games against the Orioles and Braves. On June 2, he was almost able to get through five frames against Atlanta. When he returned to the minors, he was able to twirl a 2.57 ERA.
Karns, who has been mentioned by Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo as a possibility for the No.5 starter, has been pegged by Baseball America as the No. 8 prospect in the Nationals' system.
No. 8 RHP Nate Karns
Aaron Fitt, Baseball America's national writer, believes that Karns can certainly pitch at the next level, but not necessarily as a starting pitcher.
"I don't know where he fits in," Fitt says. "Is he a starter? Is he a reliever? I tend to think he will be a reliever.
"I also think (Jake) Johansen will be a reliever, too. Johansen is younger and there still is upside. He might still be able to start and be a real impact guy. But, ultimately, they both feel to me like they are going to end up in the bullpen. They have good arms and power stuff and they can succeed in that role. There is value you there, but not that much value. That is why I have (Karns) at (No. 8) and not higher up on the list."
Fitt believes that if Karns can refine a third pitch - usually it is the changeup, as it is in this case - he can be very consistent at the top level.
"He is an older guy now and I think he is probably going to be a bullpen guy because there just isn't really a third pitch," Karns said. "He has fastball and curveball. I think it would really help if he had a changeup. He has not shown the ability to develop that pitch. It has been average at best, really. I think ultimately he will be a setup kind of a guy."
I would expect Karns to spend a good amount of time again with Double-A Harrisburg pitching coach Paul Menhart, who has a reputation as the organization's changeup whisperer. Menhart deserves credit for aggressively working on that pitch with so many of the Nationals' successful prospects, helping them to literally move up by adding the changeup to their arsenal.
Fitt postulates the Nationals might make the move to place Karns in the relief corps full-time.
"I am curious how they use him this year, whether they keep him starting now or if they just bite the bullet and move him into the bullpen role and stick him in the big leagues," Fitt said.
"I think to go to the big leagues, he could probably do it now. He is about ready for that as a reliever."