Much has been made of Nationals’ reclamation project Christian Garcia this season, and for good reason; Garcia put up a 2.13 ERA, .789 WHIP and a nasty 7.5 K/BB ratio in 12.2 Major-League innings this year after bouncing back from two Tommy John surgeries. Garcia isn’t the only great comeback story in the Nats’ system this year, however, as Nathan Karns went from missing the entire 2010 season due to a labrum injury to winning the 2012 Nationals minor league pitcher of the year award.
When Nathan Karns was drafted by the Nats in 2009’s 12th round, he was seen as a bit of an enigma. Baseball America quoted a scout in their draft report as saying “He looks like Roger Clemens in the bullpen, but he gets whacked.” Karns’ stuff was never seen as an issue, as he could dial up his fastball to 96 MPH with solid secondary options; the reasons he dropped so far in the draft were a mix of his apparent lack of his mental toughness, poor command and lazy mechanics.
There was an explanation to the mental toughness bit – his mother, Tambra, suffered a stroke during his freshman year at NC State and his mind was understandably far away from the diamond. He transferred to Texas Tech, which was only about a 4 hour drive from home for him (as opposed to a North Carolina to Texas flight away) and did not blow his opponents away. The Nats saw potential in his pitching ability and grabbed him in the low risk 12th round (although they paid well over slot value to sign him - $225,000 to be exact). John Sickels and Andy Seiler of Minor League Ball each lauded Karns as a sleeper prospect going into the 2010 season. The sky looked like the limit for Karns – and then he effectively disappeared for two seasons
Karns needed labrum surgery, and for pitchers, it’s a lot scarier to have shoulder surgery than elbow surgery these days. He missed the entire 2010 season and only threw 55 and 1/3 innings in 2011 while recovering. His 2011 line looked good – 2.28 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 55 and 1/3 innings, but his walk rate was scary (5.4 BB/9) and his health was still a question. At the ripe old age of 24 this season (25 in November), Karns mowed down Sally and Carolina league hitters, throwing a combined 116 innings of 2.17 ERA ball with much improved rate stats (5.4 H/9, 3.6 BB/9 and 11.5 K/9).
Karns’ advanced age in lower levels might scare off some people, but if you can pitch, you can pitch. Talent has never been the question for Karns, and the previous questions about his mental toughness and command issues have been quieted for now. Karns could cut it as a starter if he could build endurance, but it is more likely that he is turned into a power reliever as he is already relatively old and has a nasty fastball-slider combination. As long as he can stay healthy, we could see him in a big league bullpen as soon as next summer.