When the sale of the Washington Nationals to the Lerner family was finalized a couple of seasons back, many promises were made to their still optimistic fan base. Perhaps the keystone to their business plan was the restocking and replenishing of baseball’s most barren farm system.
Certainly, things are better now than they were that day, but even after five amateur drafts since moving to Washington, the minor league system is still lagging. While there are some very promising players within the system, there is still not enough to make a real difference yet.
At each level, there are one or two players who could one day make it to Nationals’ Park. That's a start to be sure, but still not enough to create a strong organizational foundation.
Only two of the Nationals’ top-10 rookie prospects (Chris Marrero and Ross Detwiler) were first-round picks. And while we watch and wait for our “name” prospects to mature, we miss those late round picks who come from nowhere and become integral parts of the team.
Team ace John Lannan was an 11th round selection in 2005. Craig Stammen was selected a round later the same year. Nick Johnson was taken by the Yankees in the third round in 1996. Josh Willingham was a 17th round selection by the Marlins in 2000 and the recently acquired Nyjer Morgan was a 33rd round afterthought by the Pirates two years later.
Is it no wonder then that many Nationals’ fans are wondering where catcher Derek Norris came from? Norris, 20, is tearing up the South Atlantic League for the Hagerstown Suns and is on pace to rewrite the team’s-and the league’s-record books.
As of Thursday morning, Norris is on pace to hit .319-36-114 with 161 hits, 36 doubles, 80 walks and a 1.014 OPS. He’s leading the league in virtually every offensive category and is third in the entire minor league universe in home runs.
And we really didn’t even hear his name until last fall.
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 Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee. The rest were marginal fourth-outfielder types and starting pitchers who ended up in the bullpen if they even made it to the major leagues.
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, but 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 Nationals.
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 resembles 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, hitting just .203-4-15 in 123 at-bats. His .344 on-base and .382 slugging percentages weren't very good either. He struck out 30 percent of the time while walking just 17 percent.
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 .278-10-38, and had 11 stolen bases. He walked 63 times (an all-time Lake Monsters record) while striking out just 56 times.
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 percent in 2008 while dropping his strikeout rate from 31 percent to just 24 percent.
Now look at his stats when expanded out to a 500 at bat 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 with 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 80 games, Norris is batting .319 with 20 home runs and 64 RBI.
Though the Nationals have yet to say anything definitive, my guess is that Derek Norris will be playing in Potomac before the end of the year, and assuming he continues to play well, will make to "AA" Harrisburg sometime next year.
Will he compete with Flores in Washington someday 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.