Shortly before the unfortunate news broke of the late Frank Robinson’s passing, the Orioles made a move to sign a free-agent starting pitcher. Agreeing to a one-year, $800,000 deal with incentives, right-hander Nate Karns now joins his fifth major league club, second from the American League East. To make room for Karns on the 40-man roster, infielder Jack Reinheimer was designated for assignment after being claimed off waivers from the Texas Rangers on January 28.
The former Texas Tech product hasn’t pitched in a major league game since May 19, 2017 though, and has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his big league career. Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 12th round of the 2009 Amateur Draft, Karns last pitched a full season back in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Rays. He toss 147 innings over 27 appearances (26 starts) and finished the season with a 7-5 record and an ERA of 3.67. That season, the Rays had four starters with an ERA under 3.70 and although they finished 80-82. Although they finished 80-82, having four starters with an ERA that low is something the Orioles haven’t had since they won the AL East in 2014.
The move is certainly considered a low-risk, high-reward signing with plenty of upside. Outlined in the contract are multiple performance based incentives to go along with the guaranteed $800,000. Karns, 31, can earn $50,000 for each set of 25 innings he pitches, up to $200,000 for 100 innings over the season. He can also earn an additional $50,000 if he is voted an All-Star and an extra $25,000 if he is named Comeback Player of the Year.
As I mentioned though, he’s been injury stricken since July of the 2016 season. With the Mariners that year, Karns posted a 7.33 ERA in five starts in June and was demoted to the bullpen. He made seven relief appearances that season before being placed on the 15-day Injured List with a lower back strain. Hoping to pitch again that year, Karns was moved to the 60-day Injured List on September 1, effectively ending his season.
Karns was traded in January of 2017, one-for-one, to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Jarrod Dyson. He pitched to a modest 3.43 ERA over eight starts before hitting the Injured List again on May 24, retroactive to three days prior. The official injury report stated he was dealing with nerve irritation in his right arm and in his final start, he had experienced fluid build-up in his right elbow. It was later discovered that Karns would need season-ending surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. “We were hopeful that maybe it wouldn’t require thoracic outlet-type surgery but it’s looking more and more like that’s probably going to be the case,” Royals Manager Ned Yost said.
Prior to Spring Training last season, Karns was not under any restrictions and was expected to compete for a spot in the rotation for the Royals. After a handful of starts in the exhibition season though, Karns found himself back on the Injured List with right elbow inflammation. There was optimism surrounding this stint on the IL, however, a setback in May prevented him from returning to the rotation and he was eventually moved to the 60-day IL in early June. He didn’t pitch in the 2018 season for Kansas City and opted to become a free agent at the end of October.
Now a member of the Orioles organization, Karns was the first major league player signed by General Manager Mike Elias. He is expected – and that word should be emphasized – to be healthy when pitchers and catchers report on Tuesday. He’s also expected to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Assumed to vie for a spot at the back-end, the Orioles starting five could feature, Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, Nate Karns and David Hess, potentially in that order.
A clean bill of health for Karns potentially means he replicates his 2015 season. The Orioles (and their fans) would welcome a sub-4 ERA pitcher who can hold hitters to a .193 batting average with runners in scoring position. In the first year of their rebuilding phase, the Orioles will still try to field a competitive team to go out and win ballgames. If Karns can stay healthy throughout the course of the season, he may turn out to be Elias’ best signing of the offseason.