Nathan Karns hoping to make solid first impression in Royals starting rotation

Pitcher Nathan Karns high-fives Nathan Leeker at an autograph session during Saturday’s Royals FanFest at Bartle Hall in Kansas City, Mo.
Pitcher Nathan Karns high-fives Nathan Leeker at an autograph session during Saturday’s Royals FanFest at Bartle Hall in Kansas City, Mo.

By now, Nathan Karns has this part down. A new town. A new organization. Another first impression after an offseason baseball trade.

In the last four years, Karns has been dealt three times, a trend that continued on Jan. 6, when the Royals acquired the right-handed pitcher from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Karns has mostly taken the transitions in stride, he says. Baseball is a business. Each stop offered a fresh opportunity. Choose a cliche from the ballplayer handbook. But as the 29-year-old Karns donned a Royals jersey for the first time on Friday at the club’s annual FanFest event, he conceded that some consistency and continuity would be welcome at some point.

“It would be nice to stay put for a while,” Karns said. “But having this opportunity is something that will help me build and grow as a player.”

Nathan Karns speaks at a media interview session during the Kansas City Royals' FanFest event on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.

Karns could have the chance for both opportunity and longevity in Kansas City. He is under club control through the 2020 season, a consideration that attracted the Royals’ front office. He possesses a skill-set that could make him a valuable piece at the back end of a starting rotation. But after two full seasons in the major leagues — including an injury-shortened 2016 that featured a trip to the bullpen — Karns is still looking to translate his potential into his performance.

“It is a fresh start,” Karns said. “But at the same time, I take it as an opportunity to prove myself in another clubhouse — to another set of teammates and coaching staff, city and fans.”

When the Royals consummated the trade in early January, club officials expected Karns to head to spring training and compete for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, a vacant slot behind Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas. But after the unexpected death of Ventura last week in a car crash, the calculus could immediately change. Karns will still have to prove himself during big-league camp. But with two spots open in the starting rotation, his presence at the back end of the staff appears more likely.

“There is an opportunity,” Karns said. “And if it doesn’t work out, and it’s best for me to be in the bullpen, then so be it. But for right now, my goal is to make the starting rotation.”

A year ago, Karns was unable to hold a rotation spot in Seattle. In his first 10 starts of 2016, he posted a 5-1 record with a 3.43 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 57  1/3 innings. He bottomed out during a five-start stretch in June, notching a 7.33 ERA and 17 walks in 23  1/3 innings. The struggles sent him to the bullpen, where he never felt comfortable, he said. A disc issue in his back ended his season in late July.

On Friday, Karns said his back was fully healthy. In the days after last season, he threw a 60-pitch bullpen in Seattle and continued his offseason with no complications. When the Mariners kept calling to check in on his health status, he theorized he might be a trade candidate.

Karns has been with the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. He was acquired on Jan. 6 from Seattle in exchange for outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

In the end, Karns posted a 5.15 ERA in 94  1/3 innings in 2016, including a 4.56 ERA in 15 starts. But he points to his performance in Tampa Bay in 2015 as proof that he can be an effective major-league starter. In 27 appearances, including 26 starts, he recorded a 3.67 ERA. He struck out 145 batters and walked 56 in 147 innings. He believes he could have logged an even heavier workload.

“I think the light clicked my rookie year,” Karns said, before adding: “I don’t want to sit here and step on toes, but I feel like I was doing a very good job my rookie year. I don’t think I was a ‘five-, six-inning struggle’ guy. Go back and look at the numbers. Look at my pitch count when I’m getting pulled [from games].

“That was a little bit of a mentality in Tampa. The numbers suggested pitchers struggled a third time through the lineup. We had a really strong bullpen at the time.”

It was also during that season that Karns first caught the attention of Royals manager Ned Yost. Upon meeting Karns on Friday, Yost remembered a start in Tampa Bay on Aug. 30, 2015, when Karns allowed just two runs in five innings in a 3-2 Rays victory. Yost told Karns that he was glad the Royals would no longer have to face him.

“You stuck it to us a couple times,” Yost said.

Karns smiled and recalled another start against the Royals that season, when he gave up three runs in five pitches during the bottom of the first at Kauffman Stadium.

“I’m glad you reminded me,” Yost joked. “I’m glad I didn’t think about that before we traded for you.”

For now, the past is prologue. The days in Washington, Tampa Bay and Seattle are over. Karns is ready for another chapter.

If he does not wind up in the Royals’ rotation, he would accept an assignment in the bullpen. But Karns made clear on Friday that his goal is to be in the starting rotation, a preference made clearer by a rocky stint in the bullpen last year.

“I was just trying to stay within myself,” Karns said. “I know people think when you go to the bullpen, you’re going to get a couple more ticks [of velocity]. At that time, I was a little more up and down. I was just trying to stay within myself. I didn’t want to go to another element of pitching coming out of the bullpen. I really didn’t have a routine down. It was very foreign to me. I’d only done it once or twice in my career.”

Whatever the role, Karns is ready, he said. He will head down to Surprise, Ariz., in a couple weeks, hoping for a successful start with a new franchise. After three trades in four offseasons, it’s time to make another first impression.