Nationals minor league prospects pitcher Nathan Karns and third baseman Matt Skole came to Nationals Park on Friday afternoon, signed autographs for fans and planned to sit in the Presidents Club to watch the game against the Marlins. It was part of their reward for being named the Nationals minor league pitcher and player of the year, respectively.
Both got a chance to hang out in the Nationals clubhouse with players, chat with players they developed alongside with in the minor leagues such as Tyler Moore, Sandy Leon and Steve Lombardozzi, and stand on the field they dream of playing on one day.
Karns took a longer, winding path from college to earning his award. The Nationals selected him in 2009 in the 12th round out of Texas Tech. But the 6-foot-5 right-hander didn’t pitch until last season, missing over a year and half with a labrum injury in his shoulder that required surgery. He didn’t pitch in the minor leagues until two years after being drafted.
“I missed a lot of time already,” Karns said. “That was our goal already coming in to eliminate missing game and making my every fifth day start. That was our goal.”
He finished the season 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA and 148 strikeouts, both best in the Nationals system. After being promoted to Potomac in June, he went 8-4 with a 2.26 ERA in 13 starts. In all, he walked 47 batters in 116 innings and opponents hit .174 against him.
He was shut down after reaching an inning limit this season, part of the Nationals’ organizational philosophy to limit a large jump in innings for young pitchers, especially given his injury history. Last season, he threw only 55 1/3 as he was returning from his injury.
“That was a big enough jump and we don’t want to push our luck anymore and let’s just get ready for next year,” he said. “It’s the bigger picture,” he added about the Nationals philosophy of limiting this season. “That’s what I understand. They all have a plan for us.”
Karns said he worked diligently on his maintenance program in between starts, throwing and running, to make sure he kept himself healthy. He won’t pitch in the instructional league; he’ll rest now. But in the offseason, he hope to add one or two more pitches to his repertoire He feels he grew even more comfortable with his fastball, change-up and curveball (“not necessarily having the big bite on it, just making sure you’re throwing for a strike,” he said).
Skole, a 2011 fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, finished the season hitting .291 with 27 home runs and 104 RBI and .986 OPS in 119 games at Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. After being promoted from Hagerstown, the 6-foot-4 left-handed batter hit .314 in 18 games for Potomac. He also notched 28 doubles and scored 84 runs. His 27 home runs — essentially a home run every 15.3 at-bats — led the South Atlantic League and was most among all Nationals minor leaguers. He was also named the South Atlantic League Most Valuable Player.
Skole credited his working with Nationals minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu and coaches in further developing his power stroke. He hit 17 home runs as a freshman at Georgia Tech and 20 as a sophomore, and only 10 as a senior. The biggest change was being more comfortable. In the offseason, he even worked out with Mark DeRosa, who lives in Atlanta outside the baseball season, in Duluth, Georgia.
“Obviously, 27 home runs, I was surprised,” Skole said. “But I have showed signs of power before and I know it’s in there, I just had to put it together … When I got to Hagerstown, I found a swing and I just took off from there and it was a great year.”
His biggest goal was improving on defense. He worked with minor league infielder coordinator Jeff Garber on taking better angles to balls.
“That was the big picture coming into this year was to work on defense and to get better at defense,” he said. “The offensive part was a thrill for me, I loved it. But defensively I think I made huge strides.”