Looking forward to 2015 -- something I was hoping to delay at least six more weeks -- is unavoidable with the recent, fantastic start by Nate Karns. Ian covered his majestic power-curve over the weekend, and came away noting it might be the best pitch among all of the arms in the Rays system -- no disrespect to Clockhands McGee.
After a handful of less-than-stellar starts for DC in 2013, the Rays acquired Karns in the Jose Lobaton deal that included two top-twenty prospects. The swap of three-for-one may prove a win for the Rays if Karns can continue his development, because damn that curve.
Nathan Karns entered the farm system a little stiff in his delivery and lacking a solid third pitch, (although he did occasionally throw a change up with workable movement). He spent the season pitching for Triple-A Durham, developing both aspects of the game, as well as his mental approach. Specifically, Karns says he's been learning the mindset of top-flight hitters, while developing the fringe aspects of his game to move his floor from reliever to starter, resulted in a boosted walk rate this season, but the pieces have been falling into place.
While Karns's change up wasn't necessarily on display Friday night, his Rays debut, Jim Hickey lauded the work he's put into the necessary third pitch, before elaborating, alongside Joe Maddon, on the pitcher's development, as noted by mlb.com writer Bill Chastain:
"...overall,I like the progress that he's made... obviously, if [Karns] was sought after by us, they saw something that led them to believe he could be a good pitcher, and you saw a glimpse of that last night."
Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed.
"That's the old scouting adage: If he shows it to you once, he can show it to you again," Maddon said. "There's no question he has the ability. Now it's a matter of repetition with delivery, being able to throw a strike when he wants to, commanding his curveball. ... The velocity was up. ... That was pretty impressive. God bless him, that was good stuff." [mlb.com]
Hickey also put Karns up against the debuts of Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis when asked how Rays fans should feel about the tall righty's seven innings of 114 pitch, shut out baseball. Four base runners, eight strikeouts, against a team in the playoff hunt. God bless him indeed.
But if that's the company he's keeping in Hickey's mind, where does Karns fit in the 2015 rotation depth?
We can already mark down Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi in ink, then the tradable Jeremy Hellickson in pencil. With Matt Moore sidelined with Tommy John surgery through the first half next season, unless another injury occurs, the major league rotation is already set.
Then there's Alex Colome, the grey beard among the Rays prospects, who will be out of options come 2015 -- but that doesn't guarantee him a starting role with the Tampa Bay Rays, as there are already six names in line. The flame-throwing prospect will likely need to transition to the bullpen to find a place on the Rays' 25-man roster.
It's possible that Colome will have the flexibility to move between relief work and starting as needed when the time comes, but the likelihood is his mid-high 90's fastball and history of elbow woes will relegate him to bullpen duty permanently if a transition occurs.
With Colome graduated, the rotation in Durham will feature Nate Karns heavily in 2015, though it should be noted that there is real competition in Durham, NC -- where this year's runner up for the International League title has a full rotation set to return, save Colome.
The rest of the minor league depth then consists of the enigmatic but potentially studly Enny Romero, the productive Merrill Kelly, the resurgent Mike Montgomery, and groundballer Matt Andriese. That's still a loaded rotation.
However, each of those players have their own downfall. Romero's control has yet to click over a starter's responsibilities of seven innings, and if it does not, he'll need to become another bullpen arm. Kelly has that same, lower ceiling, though that is tied more to his own rigid delivery and Quad-A expectations -- the fastball is meh, but the change up is real, which can play in the 'pen. Montgomery was once a blue-chip prospect, but toiled away for a few years between two orgs and fall ball, until this year it all started working again. He needs to prove he can pitch at a high level consistently. Andriese's game is dependent on the defense behind him, with a sinker-power curve combo and frame that matches him well alongside Karns, but his stuff has yet to play as big, leading to less K's.
More concisely: Karns and Andriese have the frames you look for to carry a load of innings, Romero and Montgomery have the upside but not the consistency, and Kelly goes unheralded. From a stuff perspective, Romero and Karns lead the bunch, but reliability will likely put Karns on top of the Rays depth chart next season, even if he isn't leading the rotation in Durham. Karns has the body, he has the stuff, but the opportunity won't be there unless Hellickson is traded. Even still, there's one more name in the way.
Alex Colome's contract means he will surely graduate to the bigs, and Marc Topkin reports that we should get two starts and some bullpen work from him over the final two weeks of the season, and maybe even one more start from Karns. These will be the two names jockeying for the top position on the depth chart next season. If anything, it's something to watch.