Kansas City Royals Should Turn Nate Karns into a Reliever

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ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 8: Nate Karns
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 8: Nate Karns /
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The Kansas City Royals should convert Nate Karns into a reliever. Here’s why the starter the team traded Jarrod Dyson to get is better off in the bullpen.

Going into the 2017 season, one of the perceived strengths of the Kansas City Royals was their starting rotation. Even after the tragic loss of Yordano Ventura, the team broke camp with a rotation of Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas and Nate Karns. Many were calling this the best group of starters Kansas City has had in years. There was also some decent depth on the team with Chris Young and Travis Wood who could be called upon in the event of an injury.

However, by the end of the year, 13 starters took the mound for the Kansas City Royals at least one time. The group ended up 24th in the league with a 4.89 ERA—their worst mark since 2012. Only Vargas and Hammel managed to stay healthy the entire year. Young and Wood were off the team by the end of July. This caused players like Luke Farrell, Eric Skoglund and Onelki Garcia to be called upon in a season where the Royals had postseason aspirations.

The injuries and ineffectiveness also had an effect on Kansas City’s calling card of late—the bullpen. Already weakened by the losses of Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar, the group was overworked and running on fumes for most of the year. This is a team that will not win without a shutdown bullpen. It’s hard to have one when starters rarely last more than five innings each game.

Clearly, something needs to change.

The Kansas City Royals need reliable starters that can be trusted to pitch 180-200 innings. They need to restore the bullpen to its former glory. One way to accomplish both is to move Karns to the bullpen.

Karns only managed to make eight starts for the Kansas City Royals before being shut down on May 24 due to what was called a right extensor strain. At the time, it seemed as though he would possibly be back after one or two turns through the rotation. Instead, Karns ended up having surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and missed the rest of the year.

In the eight starts he did make, the right-hander showed why Dayton Moore traded for him during the winter, putting up a 3.43 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Karns had the look of a solid second or third starter and was overpowering opposing batters with his curveball. So why would you put a pitcher like that in the bullpen?

Above all else, the reason to put Karns in the bullpen is because, to this point in his career, he has not been able to stay healthy. The only season in which he has pitched more than 100 innings was back in 2015 when he tossed 147 frames for the Tampa Bay Rays. Karns can be a valuable pitcher. But he needs to be on the mound in order to deliver on that promise.

Beyond the endurance factor, the Kansas City Royals should put him in the ‘pen because he has some of the best stuff among the current starters. That may sound odd at first glance. But this team needs to bring in another free agent to bolster the starting staff. That means somebody has to go. Duffy and Kennedy are getting paid, so they are locked into the rotation. Jake Junis was the Royals’ best pitcher down the stretch. He needs to be given the opportunity to show what he can do in a full season as a starter. Hammel does not really have the stuff to come out of the ‘pen.

That leaves Karns.

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As mentioned earlier, his pitches this year were filthy. He was striking out opponents at a reliever-worthy rate. By taking a look at this chart from Brooks Baseball you can see that his curveball, in particular, was generating whiffs at a career-high rate—almost half of the time. That pitch would only play up coming out of the ‘pen.

It should also be noted that the Kansas City Royals have an excellent track record of giving failed starters new life as backend relief pitchers. The aforementioned Hochevar and Davis played critical roles for Kansas City during their World Series run after mediocre careers in the rotation. Duffy has credited his time in the ‘pen with helping him become a better starter. The most recent closer for this team, Mike Minor, was a starter with Atlanta before coming to Kansas City and reinventing himself.

While Karns is by no means a failed starter, it is intriguing and exciting to think about what he could become if the Royals took the same approach with him. He has the ability to be the next great Royals’ starter-turned-reliever. And he could be part of the next great three-headed monster, perhaps with Scott Alexander and Richard Lovelady.

Next: Looking at Replacements for Core Four

So what do you think? Could Karns become the next elite setup man or closer for the Kansas City Royals? Would the team be better off keeping him in the rotation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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