Sarasota, Fla. — New Orioles pitcher Nathan Karns is looking for an opportunity like just about every other unfamiliar face at the Ed Smith Stadium spring training complex, but he’s obviously not one of the new kids on the block.
While the locker room is full of minor league prospects hoping to arrive at the major league level this season, Karns, 31, is hoping to find his way back to the mound after a promising career ran aground because of a string of debilitating injuries.
So, why join a team that has little chance to win and only four other thirtysomething players to pal around with?
“The opportunity to come back to the AL East,’’ Karns said on Thursday. “I think it’s one of the premier divisions in the league and you want to beat the biggest names and they tend to be in this division.”
Of course, that’s a tall order for a guy who hasn’t pitched in a major league game since early 2017 and has been hurt or rehabbing for much of the past three seasons. He’s undergone major thoracic surgery and been shut down a couple times because of arm problems, but when he was good he made enough of an impression to get traded twice for quality major league players.
So, what does it say about him that he didn’t look for a softer landing this spring?
“He’s a competitor,’’ said veteran starter Alex Cobb, who played part of the 2015 season alongside Karns with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He’s got a strong arm. Drives the ball really well. I’m really excited to see him. I know he’s had some health issues. We’ve actually had some similar health issues, so I’m looking forward to see what he can do when he’s healthy.”
And what does Karns think it says about his character and outlook?
“I have no idea what it says about me,’’ he said. “Maybe it’s a little silly to think this is the division to make a comeback in, but I look forward to the challenges. I really do. Had a lot of success my rookie season in ’15 here in the AL East. The lineups are a little bit different, but at the same time it’s still the competitive level that I want to be in. Go to the biggest cities, play in front of the biggest crowds, there’s a lot of rivalries here, so I look forward to it. I really do.”
Right now, it’s about winning a job on an Orioles pitching staff that features openings in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. Karns has pitched almost entirely as a starter during stops in Washington, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Kansas City, but said — after what he’s been through — he’s open to whatever is available.
“Anything, to be honest with you,’’ Karns said. “Anything to be out there competing and being in the dugout with the boys at that moment. Anything, really.”
He obviously missed that camaraderie during those long months since his 2017 season was cut short in May by forearm soreness and major surgery in July to deal with thoracic outlet syndrome — a compression of the nerves and arteries that run between the neck and armpit.
Karns started the 2018 season on the disabled list and lost another year when elbow soreness prompted the Royals to shut him down in May of that year.
“It can be frustrating at times,” he said, “but you’ve just got to remember the big picture. You keep fighting to have another opportunity back out here. I’ve been able to do that so far, but I’d like to get back on the field and show them why teams keep giving me opportunities.”
The potential was apparent early on. Karns pitched very well during his rookie season with the Rays in 2015, making 26 starts and posting a 7-5 record and 3.67 ERA. His 2.47 ERA in eight starts against the toughest teams in the AL East might explain his nostalgia for the division.
Manager Brandon Hyde is leaving open the question of where Karns fits on the pitching staff. Right now, it’s more about having him on the right program to optimize his chances of staying healthy and making the team.
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“Our goal is for him to break [camp with the big league team] and to break healthy, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens,’’ Hyde said. “Whether that’s slow-playing him, we’re just going to be talking to him every day and depending heavily on the medical guys to let us know where he’s out.”
Though the injuries have robbed Karns of a lot of on-field experience since then, Karns feels he has something to offer the younger players who surround him in the Orioles clubhouse.
He has been through a lot, and a lot of them will have to go through similar trials as they fight for a place in the big leagues.
“There’s an opportunity to kind of pass around the quality information, experiences,’’ Karns said. “Everyone’s going to go through an injury. You don’t wish that upon anyone, but if they do, you can relate to them and tell them about the road back to being healthy.”
That’s one of the things he expects to do this spring, but said he doesn’t really have a reference point to have any expectations for what he can accomplish this season.
“I have no idea what to expect,’’ he said. “Once you’ve been gone for a couple years, you keep working and see what everybody’s going to give you. For me I’m just looking forward to pushing that boundary and seeing how far I can really commit and produce quality performance out there.”
If that’s the kind of opportunity Karns was looking for, he came to the right place.