Prospect A-Z takes a back seat to the book any day, so hopefully no one missed it too much. As a refresher, the last entry was about future Rays ace Matt Moore. After dazzling minor leaguers and prospect watchers from April through August, he was promoted by the Rays to help out in the bullpen, but he eventually worked his way into the rotation and became Tampa Bay’s game one starter in the playoffs. He could start in the majors next year, but the Rays have so much depth in the rotation and may want to hold him back for service time reasons that Durham may get to enjoy him for two or three more months. Today, we switch leagues and go behind the plate for Nationals catching prospect Derek Norris.
Derek Norris, C, Washington Nationals (2011: AA Harrisburg)
When the Nationals finish over .500 and start competing for the postseason, the majority of people are going to be surprised. Maybe they shouldn’t be. We all know about Ryan Zimmerman being a franchise player and generational talents in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, but there’s more to this franchise. They have young talent across the diamond in the majors, especially up the middle with Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond who admittedly has to improve greatly on his 2011 season. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen developed into a very good late inning combo. In recent seasons, they’ve added two elements to the franchise that can lead to a turnaround: willingness to spend big in free agency and increased emphasis on drafting and player development.
Their big free agent, Jayson Werth, didn’t work out, but he’s a talented player that could easily turn it around at any time. They’re looking to the free agent market again to upgrade their rotation although they may not find an answer. They could also explore trades thanks to their investments in amateur talent. They’re adding pieces to the farm system, and paying the big bonuses tends to pay off later. Good times are ahead for this franchise if ownership remains as committed to winning as they’ve shown in the past two years.
Derek Norris could definitely be a part of that future. After signing for $210,000 out of high school in 2007, Norris hit for a low average in the Gulf Coast League, but he showed what would be his two calling cards at the plate for his career to date: power and patience. In some years, he could be among the three true outcome league leaders. With Harrisburg in 2011, over half of his at bats resulted in a home run, walk or strikeout. In his only two full, healthy seasons, Norris has hit at least 20 home runs.
That kind of power is rare for a catcher, and he has plenty of it. In 2011, five catchers in the majors hit 20 or more home runs. If he develops, Norris should be able to join that group. His skillset is a little different from that set of five though. He’s far more patient than J.P. Arencibia and Matt Wieters, and he should be able to provide better defense than Carlos Santana and Brian McCann. Maybe he develops the all-around package that Mike Napoli showed this season with Texas, but even the most optimistic Norris backers have to agree that’s incredibly unlikely.
Norris really didn’t catch much before turning pro, but it didn’t take him long to get acclimated to the position. His arm is average or above average, but he’s always gotten the most out of it and posted great caught stealing percentages. He’s showing improvements in other aspects of the defensive game as well. Norris has gotten better at blocking pitches in the dirt, and his receiving should get good enough for him to be a very good defensive catcher.
The story of the last two years for Norris probably hasn’t been a statistic or accomplishment though. After the 2009 season, he broke a hamate bone which is a hand injury that can be devastating for hitters. It tends to sap power from the player for at least a year, and sometimes it never comes back. Complications from his surgery delayed Norris’ 2010 debut, and it did take away some of his home run power. In 94 games, he hit just 12 home runs, but his ISO (SLG-BA) was still very good. He went to the AFL and performed very well, and he carried that momentum into 2011 with Harrisburg where he slugged 20 home runs.
The interesting thing for Norris is the effect the injury apparently had on his batting average. According to the reports, he should be a solid average hitter with the ability to hit to all fields with a compact swing. However, in 2010 he batted .235, and this season he was down to .210. If he doesn’t improve his average next season, it may be time to re-evaluate his hit tool, but he could still have a lot of value in the majors because of the rest of his skills. He made better contact in the AFL but didn’t hit for much power, so maybe he can carry that over to next year like his previous AFL stint.
Will his future be with the Nationals though? Wilson Ramos is coming off a quality rookie season with a solid year at the plate and good defense. Norris probably has higher upside, but he’ll still have to earn a spot in the lineup with an established, young starter in place right now. Norris will have a very good bat, but probably still not good enough to profile at first base which is probably the only other defensive position he can play. If the Nationals want to go the trade route for a starter, Norris could be used as a major piece to land James Shields, but it may be tough for them to complete the package with other desirable prospects.
Come back next week for O’s edition of Prospect A-Z. Will it be Texas’ well-rounded third baseman, the Cardinals’ new Dominican slugger or a Rays catcher coming off a historic season?