SARASOTA, Fla.—The Orioles are in need for starters, and they’re hoping they’ve found one in Nate Karns. A week ago, Karns signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Orioles, and if healthy, he could plug into the back end of their rotation.
Karns hasn’t pitched since May 2017 because of thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, and then an elbow injury last season. In five seasons, he’s 16-11 with a 4.37 ERA with Washington, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Seattle.
He’s not particular on whether you call him Nathan or Nate, but by either name he can give the Orioles a strikeout pitcher. He’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his career.
Karns was the only major league free agent signed by general manager Mike Elias, and it’s a low-risk move. For Karns, the choice was an easy one.
“The opportunity to come back to the AL East,” Karns said. “I think it’s one of the premier divisions in the league and you want to beat the biggest names, and they tend to be in this division.”
Karns’ best season was in 2015 when he was 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 26 starts for Tampa Bay.
In his career, he’s 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in five starts against the New York Yankees, and he’s pitched 13 scoreless innings against Toronto, allowing just five hits. In his one start against the Boston Red Sox, he allowed five runs in six innings.
“Maybe it’s a little silly to think this is the division to make a comeback in, but I look forward to the challenges,” Karns said. “Had a lot of success my rookie season in ’15 here in the AL East. The lineups are a little bit different, but at the same time it’s still the competitive level that I want to be in. Go to the biggest cities, play in front of the biggest crowds, there’s a lot of rivalries here, so I look forward to it. I really do.”
For a 31-year-old, Karns has relatively little major league experience.
“I’ve been injured for a little bit, but they really saw what I had…this offseason,” Karns said. “When a team believes in you, you want to play for them.”
Manager Brandon Hyde doesn’t know if he’ll be able to count on Karns but knows it would be a big plus if he were available.
“Obviously, you’re aware of his history,” Hyde said. “We had a meeting with him yesterday, and he feels awesome.”
Hyde wants to make sure Karns remains healthy.
“We’re going to do anything we can to make sure that that happens,” Hyde said. “We’re going to be talking to him every single day, and we’re going to rely heavily on the medical guys to let us know where he’s at.”
The Orioles are Karns’ fifth team. His goal is to stick.
“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.”
There aren’t many players over 30 on the Orioles. Karns could join starters Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb as veterans and, perhaps, mentors.
“There’s an opportunity to kind of pass around the quality information, experiences,” Karns said.
“Everyone’s going to kind of go through an injury. You don’t wish that upon anyone, but if they do, you can relate to them and tell them about the road back to being healthy. But end of the day, I’m here to give advice when asked and at the same time kind of pick some of the other veterans’ minds. They have a lot of experience, too, so it’s a good way to pass along information, experiences, and kind of improve as a player.”
In his career, Karns has exceeded 100 innings just once. In 2015, he threw 147 1/3 innings.
“I mean, 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. I’m going to keep doing my workouts, do the same preparations as if it’s a normal season and just take it day by day.”
Karns is open to starting or relieving, and that’s fine with Hyde.
“He’s gone back and forth in his career,” Hyde said. “I think with our openings, with how we are right now as a club, I can see him do either one. I think we’re going to kind of base that on where we are, where he is health-wise, what we think he’ll benefit from, but probably in the best interests for him.”