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May 28, 2013
The Situation: Following a breakout 2012 season, Karns seemed destined for another full season in the minor leagues blocked by a loaded Washington rotation. With just one injury, though, things can change, and they changed to Karns’ benefit when Ross Detwiler injured his oblique, creating a need for another starter.
Background: After battling inconsistency at North Carolina State and Texas Tech, Karns’ draft stock plummeted in 2009, as he was routinely touched up throughout the spring. He was finally popped in the 12th round by the Nationals and signed for $225,000. Almost immediately after signing, Karns came up lame with a torn labrum and missed the remainder of the 2009 season and all of 2010. Back on the hill in 2011, Karns posted a solid 3.44 ERA in eight starts for the New York-Penn League’s Auburn Doubledays. His breakout came in 2012 with good health and monster showings at both Low-A and High-A. On the season, he recorded a 2.17 ERA in 116 innings with just 70 hits allowed, 47 walks, and 148 punchouts. Karns has handled the jump to Double-A reasonably well this season, pitching to a 4.60 ERA in nine starts, allowing less than a hit per inning, and fanning 11 batters per nine.
Scouting Report: Karns is physically imposing, standing 6’5” and checking in around 230 pounds. He uses his height to generate a good angle to the plate, making his sinking fastball even more difficult to barrel consistently. Karns’ 93-95 mph velocity gives his heater better than plus grades, allowing him to miss bats and induce weak contact low in the zone. He compliments his primary pitch with a classic overhand hammer curveball that has earned plus-plus grades on occasion. The one-two punch provided by his fastball and curve can be deadly when he has control over both. However, Karns lacks a passable changeup and will likely always be a two-pitch guy. His delivery can get away from him at times, thanks to some effort throughout, but he does throw strikes. Karns doesn’t spot well and will never have the command or depth in his arsenal to profile as more than a no. 3 or no. 4 starter.
Immediate Big-League Future: Karns’ fastball-curveball combination could give major league hitters trouble the first time they see him. He is the best of the Nationals pitching prospects who are close to the big leagues, and if Detwiler’s oblique keeps him on the shelf for a while, Karns could find himself in the rotation for more than this spot start. —Mark Anderson
Fantasy Impact: Depending on the status of Ross Detwiler's oblique, this may just be a one-and-done start for Karns, who has continued to build on his strong performance from last season. He’ll face a strong offensive team in the Orioles, so this isn’t an ideal matchup, but the fact that he's getting the call bodes well for his 2013 value. The Nationals don’t have a farm system blessed with a plethora of arms at the upper levels of the minors, so Karns could lock up the sixth starter spot with a respectable performance.
As of right now, Karns is worth monitoring only in very deep mixed leagues (16-plus teams) and NL-only formats. If it looks like Detwiler will not be back for his scheduled start on Sunday, I would throw a couple of FAAB dollars at Karns. In dynasty formats, however, he could be worth grabbing in anything 14 teams and deeper. The potential is there for Karns to be a nice strikeout pitcher in the long term, but barring any further injuries, he'll be left out in the cold for this season, given the strength of the Nats' rotation. —Bret Sayre
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark