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Orioles sign free agent pitcher Nate Karns

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In a radical departure from his predecessor, new GM Mike Elias has signed a free agent pitcher before spring training.

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners
Karns in action for the Mariners in 2016.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

With less than a week to go until the start of spring training, it looked like the Orioles might just not bother to sign any free agents for the 2019 team. They’ve pulled off a signing after all, bringing in 31-year-old righty Nate Karns on a one-year contract. The deal, which is agreed to but not yet final, was first reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.

Karns did not pitch in the 2018 season after missing most of 2017 with a mystery injury that turned out to be thoracic outlet syndrome, requiring surgery. The specter of the Orioles physical is always out there, but it’s not like this is a huge contract. Nightengale reported it’s an $800,000 guarantee for 2019 with a possible $200,000 in incentives. In the event that Karns does well, the O’s would also control him for one arbitration season in 2020 before he becomes a free agent.

One way we can tell that new GM Mike Elias is going to be different than his predecessor is that he’s actually managed to sign a free agent pitcher before the start of spring training.

The Orioles would be the fifth team of Karns’s career in just six big league seasons. Since being drafted by the Nationals in the 12th round back in 2009, trades have sent him from the Nationals to the Rays to the Mariners to the Royals. The Royals chose not to retain Karns after the thoracic outlet surgery, making him a free agent.

Although Karns hasn’t thrown more than 100 innings or been any good since 2015, it’s not hard to see the potential upside in signing a guy whose talent has been derailed by unfortunate injuries. In that 2015 season with the Rays, Karns struck out 145 batters in 147 innings on the way to posting a 3.67 ERA and 4.09 FIP. Four years ago is forever ago in baseball terms, but it’s something he can hang his hat on.

This is the kind of signing where if the Orioles made it a year or two ago, when they were still pretending that they could contend, that would have been disappointing. You’re not serious about addressing a weakness in the rotation to try to make the playoffs if you sign Nate Karns.

In 2019, we already know the Orioles will be bad. They aren’t signing Karns with the expectation that he will meaningfully change that. If the signing does work out, then he pushes what would have been a fourth/fifth starter competition among a variety of pitching prospects to just a fifth starter competition.

That’s only bad news for the chances of Luis Ortiz, Dillon Tate, Josh Rogers, John Means, David Hess, and the rest of that ilk collecting more big league paychecks. When they woke up this morning, two of them looked to be ticketed for early rotation spots. Now, only one of them is.

If Karns turns out to be healthy and good, the Orioles can trade him either at this July’s trade deadline or next. A year-plus of a cheap, decent pitcher is worth something to a contending club if that is what Karns turns out to be.

If Karns is not healthy, not good, or both, the total cost is at most a million bucks. They will probably have a decent idea by the end of spring training if he has anything left in the tank. If he doesn’t, he might not even make it to Opening Day.

The 2018 Orioles flushed three times the maximum Karns money down the toilet on Chris Tillman, among other veteran wastes of money and roster space who made the Opening Day roster last year. The only thing they will have to do is clear one of the worthless players off the 40-man to sign Karns.

It’s as close to zero risk as a signing gets. Here’s hoping it works out for Karns and the Orioles.