By JAY LeBLANC
No Washington Nationals minor leaguer raised his stock more than 2007 fourth-round pick Derek Norris did last season. After struggling in his pro debut, the 6-foot, 210-pound catcher put on a season-long hitting clinic in 2008 for the short-season Class A Vermont Lake Monsters. Norris slugged 10 home runs - good for sixth-best in the New York-Penn League - and easily led the circuit in both walks (63) and on-base percentage (.444). Baseball America took notice and ranked him as the fourth-best prospect in the New York-Penn League and the sixth-best in the Nationals organization.
This year, Norris appears primed to make the jump from being a very good prospect to being an elite prospect. Through 29 games for the Class A Hagerstown Suns, the 20-year-old is hitting an even .300 with a South Atlantic League-best 25 RBI. He also ranks third in the league in homers (7), second in walks (18) and fifth in OBP (.405). Norris is still somewhat raw as a backstop - he moved behind the plate as a high school senior after playing third base his first three years - but he used his strong arm and quick release to throw out 47 percent of attempted base stealers last year and has gunned down 36 percent so far this season.
I had a chance to speak with the Nationals’ catcher of the future Monday night after he went 2-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI to lead the Suns to a 7-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates-affiliated West Virginia Power.
Q: You moved from third base to catcher as a high school senior. What prompted the switch? Whose idea was it?
A: Well, I played third because I always was a hitter and it was a way to get me into the lineup because I always had a senior in front of me. So I always played third just to get a spot in the lineup. I always played catcher through Little League and my teenage years, and just in high school, there was seniority. [Tyler Weber] was there, and he was a Division I catcher - he was with the Tigers organization, got drafted last year. He was always just in front of me so I had to find a spot in the lineup. Third base was the only open spot, so I took it.
Q: You passed on a scholarship to Wichita State to sign with the Nationals. Was that a difficult decision for you?
A: You know, it was at first, but now, as I look back, I’m glad I made the right decision. It was without a doubt the right decision; I’ve learned so much down here. But at first it was difficult. You know, they have a great program, Wichita State - a winning tradition. But I just figured, if I see myself in three years, would I be advanced? And I said yes, and that’s really what made the decision for me.
Q: At this point in your development, what are your strengths as a catcher, and what are your weaknesses?
A: My weaknesses would be, probably, just the basics of catching the ball. Sometimes I struggle with the ball popping out of the mitt. My strength is probably throwing - I would consider myself to have a pretty good arm. But weaknesses - we could go all day on weaknesses; I could think of so many. My intensity, and my leadership on the field could get better, too.
Q: Do you step up to the plate with a plan, or do you just trust your reactions?
A: It depends on whether there’s runners on. If there’s runners on, you obviously have a job - to get a guy over, get a guy in. Always stay through the gaps - don’t try to stay down the lines because that’s when you pull off balls or are late on balls. So I try and stay from left-center to right-center.
Q: What are some of your goals for this season?
A: To get to the playoffs and win a championship. I’ve never had a chance to win a championship with a team like this. We’ve got a good group of guys and a good pitching staff. And just to be a leader and just keep winning.
Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model your approach after?
A:Bobby Henley. He’s our catching coordinator, and he’s taught me so much. He didn’t get a whole lot of time in the big leagues, but the guy knows what he’s talking about, and anything he says I just take in.
Q: Your manager, Matt LeCroy, also caught in the majors for eight seasons. What is the best piece of advice he’s given you so far?
A: You know, he doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he says something it usually sticks. He doesn’t say a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t mean anything. He can tell you because he just got out of the game - he’s not a guy that’s like 40, 50 years old that’s been, you know, what they call “old school.” He’s more of the new school type - he can tell you what it takes right now to get to the big leagues, and that’s a big part of it.
Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Nationals?
A: We’ll see. I’m hoping in a couple years, but you never know. It just depends on how well I perform out there, and really it’s my catching that’s going to get me there, not my hitting, so I’ve got to focus on that.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s:
2008 -Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Matt LaPorta, Indians; Austin Jackson, Yankees; Jeff Bianchi, Royals; Cole Rohrbough, Braves; Pat Venditte, Yankees.