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2014 Nationals' Rotation Candidate: Nathan Karns

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Nathan Karns made his MLB debut in Washington in 2013, but really impressed once he returned to Double-A Harrisburg and finished strong in his third minor league season. Can the 26-year-old right-hander pitch his way back to the Nationals in 2014?

Patrick McDermott

Washington Nationals' General Manager Mike Rizzo talked about right-hander Nathan Karns' MLB debut this past May as an organizational accomplishment. "It was a great day for the entire organization," Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier. "You talk about a late draft, a 12th Round [pick], had surgery, was rehabbed by our rehab coordinators down in Viera, was developed by our pitching coaches down in the minor leagues. It's a proud day when those kind of stories get to the mound at Nats Park and really throw a nice ballgame for us."

"I thought basically he went after the hitters," Davey Johnson said, "I was glad to see him going after them and he showed a good changeup and good little curve ball." - Davey Johnson on Nate Karns' MLB debut

Karns returned from surgery for a labrum injury and posted a (3-0) record with a 2.03 ERA, 2.37 FIP, 21 walks (4.26 BB/9) and 61 Ks (12.38 K/9) in 44 1/3 IP for the Low-A Hagerstown Suns and an (8-4) record with a 2.26 ERA, 2.21 FIP, 26 BB (3.27 BB/9) and 87 Ks (10.93 K/9) in 77 1/3 IP for the High-A Potomac Nationals in 2012.

In nine starts at Double-A Harrisburg before he was called up to the majors last summer, the then-25-year-old, '09 12th Round pick was (4-2) with a 4.60 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 18 walks (3.60 BB/9) and 55 Ks (11.0 K/9) in 45 IP.

In three starts with Washington, Karns was (0-1) with a 7.50 ERA, an 8.38 FIP, six walks (4.50 BB/9), 11 Ks (8.25 K/9) and five home runs (3.75 HR/9) allowed in 12 IP. Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Mr.'s Kushner and Rouhier that in spite of the numbers he was impressed with what he saw from the right-hander.

"You got to see one of our future guys in Karns that I thought handled himself extremely well and [maturely] in some trying situations," Rizzo said. "Those emergency starts are never easy. Especially for a young kid, but handled himself well, you could see the stuff is there and he'll be one of the guys that we'll count on down the road in the future."

"He's a big physical pitcher. He throws hard. He's got good stuff," Rizzo explained when asked what Karns would need to improve. "He's 93-96 on his fastball and he's got a good spiked curve ball and a good feel for the change."

"He's 93-96 on his fastball and he's got a good spiked curve ball and a good feel for the change. I liked the first two outings when he attacked the strike zone..." - - Mike Rizzo on Nate Karns on 106.7 the FAN in D.C.

"With the good stuff," he said, "you still have to make pitches and hit your spots and I think with more reps and more starts in the minor leagues that he'll get better at that and he'll be a guy that we can feel comfortable reaching for again if need be and a guy down that road that will compete for a rotation spot down the road in the future."

Upon returning to Double-A, Karns was (1-1) with a 1.64 ERA in two starts in June. He held opposing hitters to a .156 AVG in six starts and 36 1/3 IP in July over which he posted a 2.48 ERA and finished his third minor league season with six outings in August in which he put up a 2.90 ERA in 40 1/3 IP to leave him with a (10-6) record, a 3.26 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 48 walks (3.26 BB/9) and 155 Ks (10.52 K/9) in 132 1/3 IP.

Rizzo talked about Karns being in the mix for the fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation going into Spring Training after the trade for right-hander Doug Fister, telling reporters, including's Bill Ladson, that he was happy with the organizational depth. "We have great depth at that spot," Rizzo said. "When you talk about [Ross] Detwiler, [Tanner] Roark, [Taylor] Jordan, [Nathan] Karns and Sammy Solis and the younger wave of guys that could get here in the future, I feel good about where we are at."

Karns might be the longest shot out of the competitors for the final spot in the rotation behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister, with Detwiler considered the favorite a month before Spring Training. Neither Karns or Jordan pitched above Double-A before making their respective MLB debuts last year, so a start at Triple-A might make sense for both. Roark performed well out of the bullpen and might be more suited for a bullpen role.

Both the Nats' GM and Baseball America's Aaron Fitt think Karns positioned himself well this year for a call to the majors should the Nationals need starting help. Though he dropped from 5th overall in 2013 to 9th on BA's list of the Nats' Top 10 Prospects for 2014 with right-handers A.J. Cole and 2013 1st Round pick Jake Johansen both passing him on the list, Mr. Fitt wrote that Karns was one of several standouts at Double-A who could help out at the major league level in the near future.

"Brian Goodwin, Robbie Ray, Nate Karns and Steven Souza all joined [A.J.] Cole in spending meaningful time in Double-A last year," Fitt wrote before the deal that sent Ray to Detroit, "and any of them could contribute in Washington soon." Will Karns end up in the pen or stay in the rotation? It may depend on where the Nats have a need.