On early Monday morning, Royals manager Ned Yost summoned right-handed pitcher Nathan Karns to his office. As players milled about the clubhouse, groggily beginning another week here at camp, the meeting would be brief. The message was a reward.
Two weeks from Opening Day, Yost informed Karns that he would be the Royals’ No. 5 starter, the final building block in the club’s 2017 starting rotation.
“Congratulations,” Yost said.
The decision settled a three-man competition that had lasted all camp. Karns beat out left-hander Travis Wood and veteran right-hander Chris Young, who will both shift to the bullpen as the season begins. The choice was not clear-cut, Yost said. But the schedule necessitated a resolution.
“We don’t have innings left (in camp) for seven starters,” Yost said. “And we need to get those guys acclimated to the pen.”
Karns, 29, entered camp as a slight favorite to round out the rotation after being acquired from the Mariners in an offseason trade that sent outfielder Jarrod Dyson to Seattle. But Wood joined the fray in the early days of spring training after agreeing to a two-year, $12 million deal on Feb. 13. Wood, who spent parts of the last two seasons in the Cubs’ bullpen, was interested in returning to starting, a role he held early in his career in Cincinnati and Chicago. The Royals offered an opportunity.
Yet as the season approached, the Royals opted for the right-handed power stuff of Karns, who lost his spot in the Mariners’ rotation last season before a back injury ended his season.
“He’s got three ‘plus’ pitches,” Yost said. “We like his power. We like the versatility of Woody and C.Y. We won a world championship with C.Y. in that role. Both of those guys have the mental toughness, so if we need to move them into the rotation, you’ll make that transition flawlessly.
“It was a tough decision. We just had to make a decision.”
For Karns, the decision offered a measure of relief. In 2016, he posted a 5.15 ERA in 94 1/3 innings before a disc issue in his back forced him to the disabled list and ended his season. As he prepped for his first season in Kansas City, he was motivated to show that his body was healthy and his arm was ready to contribute. As camp began, he focused on improving his changeup and polishing his four-seam fastball and curveball. In 2015, he had logged a 3.67 ERA in 147 innings for the Tampa Bay Rays. The Royals believed that forsaking one season of Dyson, who will be a free agent after this season, was worth it to land Karns, who is under club control for four more seasons.
“I wanted to get my body right and give my best foot forward for this camp,” Karns said. “I didn’t have exactly the results I wanted in camp. But I guess I showed them enough that I was healthy.”
In four starts this spring, Karns yielded nine earned runs while recording 14 strikeouts. In his last start, he surrendered four runs to the Brewers in the first inning before settling in and recording three scoreless innings. Wood, meanwhile, recorded a 4.05 ERA with seven strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. Young posted a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings while striking out 11 and issuing five walks.
On Sunday, Yost, pitching coach Dave Eiland and general manager Dayton Moore met for a couple hours to sort through the decision.
“There were times where all three of them were going to be the fifth starter,” Yost said. “And then we just settled on that.”
Karns rounds out a starting rotation that will feature Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy at the top and Jason Vargas and Jason Hammel in the middle. It remains likely that Wood and Young could be needed to make starts this season, even if the Royals enjoy good health. Vargas, 34, is entering his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, while Hammel, 34, has never thrown more than 180 innings in his career.
For the moment, Young will settle into a long relief role, while Yost said Wood could be used for multiple innings in the middle of games or as a possible late-inning reliever.
“They’ll get starts this year,” Yost said. “It’s a long year.”
For now, though, the season will begin with Karns in the rotation.
“It’s always tough to compete for a roster spot,” Karns said. “There’s a lot of people trying to do this, and to be named the No. 5 starter is very rewarding for me.”