SARASOTA, Fla. -- Everyone hopes for health this early in spring. But few more than Nate Karns, who has trudged a longer road back than any player in Orioles camp.The right-hander, a breakout starter a few years ago, is now 31 and at a crossroads after spending most of the
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Everyone hopes for health this early in spring. But few more than Nate Karns, who has trudged a longer road back than any player in Orioles camp.
The right-hander, a breakout starter a few years ago, is now 31 and at a crossroads after spending most of the past two seasons on the shelf. "Opportunity" has been the word most thrown around Ed Smith Stadium, and Karns is here hoping to seize a big one. An opportunity to revive his career.
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"I have no idea what to expect," Karns said. "Once you've been gone for a couple years, you keep working and see what everybody's going to give you. For me, I'm just looking forward to pushing that boundary and seeing how far I can really commit and produce quality performance out there."
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Fair or not, physical maladies have long defined Karns, whose pro career began with a torn labrum after the Nationals made him a 12th-round Draft pick in 2009. His first full season didn't come until 2015, when, at age 27, Karns broke out with a 3.67 ERA in 26 starts for the Rays. But since then, injuries have continuously cut into that potential.
A lower back strain cost him the final two months of the following season, after which the Mariners traded Karns to the Royals for Jarrod Dyson. The righty made just nine appearances in Kansas City before undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome, then missed all the 2018 season due to elbow inflammation. All told, he's managed just 31 appearances since 2016, and last pitched competitively on May 19, 2017.
"It can be frustrating at times, but you've just got to remember the big picture, you know?" Karns said. "You keep fighting to have another opportunity back out here. I've been able to do that so far, but I'd like to get back on the field and show them why teams keep giving me opportunities."
Healthy again this winter, Karns held a showcase for teams in Dallas, which 25 teams attended. He parlayed that into a one-year, $800,000 (with incentives) deal with the Orioles, who were in the market for a low-risk veteran arm and were undoubtedly intrigued by the mix of Karns' past performance and underlying metrics.
Throughout his career, Karns has showed an elite ability to miss bats despite a fastball that, at last check, poured in at a fairly pedestrian 93 mph average per Statcast™. But the righty's four-seamer elicits nearly elite-level spin (2391 rpm, placing it in the 84th percentile of starters in 2017). That allows it to play up, and has helped Karns rack up 9.3 strikeouts per nine across 63 career appearances.
"We're aware of his history and he feels awesome," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. "We're looking for him to break healthy, and do everything we can to make sure that happens."
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Now in Baltimore, Karns arrives as one of the few veterans in camp and a favorite to land one of the O's open back-end rotation spots. But the reality is he can fill a variety of roles. A starter by trade, Karns also profiles well for multi-inning relief duty should he prove durable enough for only shorter outings. The Royals also toyed with the idea of using Karns as a late-inning specialist, before injury struck last spring.
"He's gone back and forth in his career," Hyde said. "I think with our openings, I can see him doing either/or."
For his part, Karns says he's open to "anything, really," that gets him back on the field after so long on the sidelines.
"Anything to be honest with you," Karns said. "Anything to be out there competing and being in the dugout with the boys at that moment."
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.