This guy came out of nowhere. Nationals' fans knew of Chris Marrero and Michael Burgess and Jack McGeary and Craig Stammen, but they had never heard of Derek Norris.
The Washington faithful were so elated with the team's 2007 first-round selection of pitcher Ross Detwiler that the other players taken that day ended up being little more than names on a page.
Oh sure, second-round pick Jake Smolinksi and third rounder Steven Souza were known commodities, but when you get to the fourth round, you typically find organizational-type players who fill holes in the minor league system until someone better comes along.
From 1999 through 2004, after all, the best players drafted in the fourth round were pitchers John Papelbon and Cliff Lee. The rest were marginal fourth-outfielder types and starting pitchers who ended up in the bullpen.
Only one out of four players drafted in the fourth round in those years made it to the major leagues, and less than four percent became everyday players, so it's no wonder then that no one took notice of Derek Norris when he was selected as the 130th player in the 2007 amateur draft.
He was just another high school catcher with little chance to make it in the majors.
Or so we all thought. He just may prove us all wrong.
Norris grew up in Goddard, Kansas, a Wichita bedroom community. He was named to the 2007 Louisville Slugger All-American team and was selected as Gatorade's Baseball Player of the Year for the state of Kansas.
He had committed to play for nearby powerhouse Wichita State, and when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Nationals, he began to prepare for his first semester in college. Norris didn't think he would ever sign with Washington.
He believed he was a second-round baseball player, and expected second-round money, something he was unlikely to get from the Nats.
But one night, Washington Assistant GM Bob Boone showed up at the Norris' front door. A fellow catcher, Boone painted pictures of his days in the major leagues, talked about his seven Gold Gloves, and flashed enough of the Lerner family's money to convince Derek to sign with the Nationals.
Did the Nationals give him the second-round money he wanted?
"Well, I got what I think I need," said the young catcher when the signing was announced.
He spent his first season with the Gulf Coast Nationals, which better resemble a baseball academy than a professional minor league club. There are wake-up calls, bed checks, and games played before a few dozen fans during the hottest part of Florida's day.
I guess you can add rookie baseball players to the old saying that "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun."
The 18-year-old didn't do terribly well during his first professional campaign, going for just .203, 4, and 15 in 123 at-bats. While that works out to .203, 16, and 60 over a full season, his .344 on-base and .382 slugging percentages weren't very good. He struck out 30 percent of the time while walking just 17 percent. His BB:K ratio was a horrid 0.66.
However, he showed good defense behind the plate, and he was promoted to the short-season New York Penn League's Vermont Lake Monsters in 2008. And there, his offensive production changed like the seasons in New England.
In just 227 at-bats, Norris batted .278 with 10 HR, 38 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. He walked 63 times (an all-time Lake Monsters record) while striking out on just 56 occasions.
He had a .463 slugging percentage, and his .444 on-base percentage led the league. He raised his rate of walks from 16 percent of his appearances in 2007 to 22 in 2008 while dropping his strikeout rate from 31 to 24. His BB:K rate jumped to 1.16.
Now look at his stats when expanded out to a 500-AB season, the best way to contrast and compare with other players: .278, 23 HR, 85 RBI, 24 stolen bases, 144 walks, and 128 strikeouts.
A total of 144 walks? That's Barry Bonds territory.
Those statistics fit perfectly with his scouting report numbers from thebaseballcube.com (these are based on 100 possible points): Power: 90, Speed: 61, Contact: 26, and Patience: 100.
Wowsers. And he was a 19-year-old hitting against mostly 21- and 22-year-olds who had three or four years of college experience.
He was named last season to the Topps Rookie League All-Star Team, and Baseball America tapped him as Washington's No. 6 prospect. He was also designated as having the best plate discipline of all Nationals' prospects.
Norris' defense is solid as well. He led the New York-Penn league in throwing out base runners with a 47 percent efficiency rate. That compares favorably former National Brian Schneider, considered one the premier defensive catchers in baseball, who threw out 50 percent of base stealers last year. Note that current Nationals catcher Jesus Flores, considered a solid defender, threw out just 36 percent of would-be base runners in 2008.
Norris impressed team management this past spring and was named the starting catcher for the low-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. There was a lot of pressure on the young man; it would be very difficult to duplicate his 2008 season, but if he didn't, he might find himself lingering in the low minors for quite some time.
Not to worry. In 38 games, Norris is batting .323 with 10 home runs, 32 RBI, and a whopping 1.096 OPS. Just let his numbers based on a full season soak in: .323, 40, and 128 with 40 doubles and 85 walks.
Though the Nationals have yet to say anything definitive, my guess is that Derek Norris will be playing in Potomac by the end of June and, assuming he continues to play well, will start 2010 at AA Harrisburg.
Will he compete with Flores in Washington some day soon?
Interestingly, the Nationals aren't sure they are going to keep Derek as a catcher. He has shown great speed (for a catcher, "good" speed for an infielder), and there is talk of perhaps moving him to first or a corner outfield position.
If Flores continues to improve, Norris will have to move to another position if he stays with the organization. But if Jesus doesn't make it, look for Norris to be given a chance sometime in the future.
Derek Norris looks good. The kid has the talent to break that fourth-round trend of fading into obscurity. All he needs now is a little luck and a lot of desire.
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