Derek Norris, the new Washington Nationals catcher, has big shoes to fill heading into 2017. How will he fill them? Just fine.
Since his trade from the San Diego Padres in December, many people thought Norris was the stopgap until the Nats traded for a better catcher or signed someone like Matt Wieters.
Now with two weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach, Norris is that guy. The Opening Day job is his to lose between now and the end of March. With two years of team control—this year for $4.2 million—expect him to have plenty of time to enjoy the role.
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Norris has two tasks this year which are tough. He replaces the popular “Buffalo” Wilson Ramos behind the plate and must hit better than last season’s .186 to keep the job. You can add learning the starting pitchers likes and breaking in a new closer too.
With three catchers expecting regular playing time this spring, Norris’ initial change is difficult. Jose Lobaton is the presumptive backup while Pedro Severino shoots for a full season with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. Still, the trio will split time early on until Severino makes whatever case he has to make the big-league roster.
A durable catcher, at least Norris need not deal with the transition of switching leagues. In his two seasons with San Diego, he played in 272 games while catching in 244. If needed, he can play first base. Although Daniel Murphy and Clint Robinson will spell Ryan Zimmerman, Norris is added insurance.
Where he needs to impress his new club most is at the plate.
Never a hitter in danger of winning a Silver Slugger, his .186 batting average last year in the pitching-rich National League West is still poor. When you look at his Adjusted OPS+ of 56 and consider that is a drop of 2015’s 91, it becomes alarming. During his All-Star year with the Oakland Athletics in 2014, he whiffed 86 times in 442 plate appearances.
Last season in 458 times up Norris struck out 139 times. A career-high.
He has double-digit home run power, slugging 14 a year during both of his Padres campaigns. For a catcher, he has speed. Even with his paltry .255 on-base percentage, Norris stole nine bases on 11 tries. His first year with San Diego, he slashed 33 doubles while legging out two triples.
The key to Norris’ success comes with how he handles his pitchers. With the Nats emphasizing pitch framing if he can steal an out or two for his starter then they might need less bullpen. An average arm throwing out baserunners—26 percent compared to a 27 percent average—most of what makes him useful is not in the box score.
If his pitchers rave about Norris’ abilities, then the Nationals win the trade, and maybe an extra game or two.