By JAY LeBLANC
Washington Nationals minor leaguer Derek Norris was flattered when he learned last week that South Atlantic League managers, general managers, sportswriters and broadcasters had selected him as the Most Outstanding Major League Prospect in the 16-team circuit, but the 20-year-old catcher kept it all in perspective.
“It’s always nice to get an award for something you’ve worked hard for, but I’m still in low A-ball. I still haven’t really proven a whole lot yet,” Norris said Monday after his Hagerstown Suns closed out their season with a 4-2 loss to the visiting Lake County Captains. “I’ve still got to work my way up the ladder and still keep improving and doing well.”
Playing full-season pro ball for the first time, Norris led the Sally League in walks (90) and on-base percentage (.413) while ranking second in home runs (23), fourth in RBI (84) and fifth in slugging percentage (.513). The 2009 season was the second straight in which the 6-foot, 210-pound Kansas native led his league in both walks and on-base percentage; he also accomplished the feat last year in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League.
“Overall, I was pretty happy with the way I was for the whole season,” Norris said. “As far as hitting, I think I did as well as I could. I slumped here and there, but overall I was pretty happy about the way I hit.”
Norris is about as advanced a hitter as you’ll see for his age, and scouts have little doubt that he’ll continue to get on base and hit for power as he moves up the ladder. Still, he realizes there’s room for improvement.
“I need to work on staying with the offspeed pitches - not giving up on certain pitches. If you see a curveball up, don’t give up on it, because you never know if it’s going to drop in there for a strike,” Norris said. “If you don’t know how to hit offspeed, you’re probably not going to make it very far.”
Norris shifted to catcher as a high school senior after playing third base the previous three years, and was considered raw at the position when the Nationals made him a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft. He has a strong throwing arm and has made good progress working with Suns manager Matt LeCroy and Nationals catching coordinator Bob Henley - both of whom caught in the majors - but his defense still lags well behind his offense.
“My weakness is just catching the ball - simply just catching the ball,” Norris said. “I’m not too worried about the passed balls or stuff like that; I’ve always done pretty well keeping in front of the ball. Mainly [I need to improve on] catching the ball and just staying focused.”
Norris missed the Suns’ final three games of the year with a left thumb injury that he said has bothered him for a while and was aggravated when he caught a Juan Jaime fastball on Friday night. He characterized it as “wear and tear - ligament stuff” and said he won’t need surgery.
Norris should be ready to go when the Arizona Fall League schedule kicks off on Oct. 13. He said he’s excited about teaming up with the Nationals’ two 2009 first-round picks, starter Stephen Strasburg and closer Drew Storen, on the Phoenix Desert Dogs, and he’s also looking forward to the challenge of facing off against more advanced competition.
“It’s going to be a really good thing for me to be around that kind of play,” he said. “I didn’t have a big chance to be around Double-A, Triple-A guys that are right in front of the big leagues in low A-ball. I’m not putting down anybody here, but I mean, the level of play is just so much higher, and I think it’s going to be good just to get around that.”
Norris said he thinks the Nationals are headed in the right direction as an organization, especially since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager on a permanent basis. He plans to train “profusely” with his personal trainer this offseason, and he’s well aware of what he needs to do in order to reach the big leagues.
“It just depends on my defense,” Norris said. “They tell me they have no doubt that I could go in right now and hit at the big league level, but it’s my catching, I think, that’s keeping me back. But you know, I’ll have a good year next year, and see where it takes me.”
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prospect Q&A - Derek Norris, Nationals