SURPRISE, Ariz. — About 30 minutes before the Scottsdale Scorpions sent Nationals prospect Matt Purke to the mound for the left-hander’s first professional start, catcher Derek Norris made his way into a mostly empty visitors dugout at Surprise Stadium.
He strapped on his gear, still fresh off a 3-for-4 performance from two days earlier that featured a homer on 96 mph heat, and showed off his powerful arm with a 1.87-second relay to second to catch an attempted base stealer.
It was the type of performance that showcased his abilities — behind the plate and at it — and reinforced the notion that Norris is Washington’s second-best position prospect, behind Bryce Harper.
“How long have you been catching?” Chili Davis, a former All-Star outfielder and now hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A team, asked him as the two divvied up sunflower seeds. When Norris, 22, told him it had only been a little more than four years since he was a high school third baseman with minimal catching experience, Davis’ eyes widened.
It’s a look that anyone who brings up Norris’ name or the Nationals’ fortunate situation at the catching position is familiar with. Ask a scout about the Nationals’ depth at catcher, and his face will assume the same look. The team’s front office executives have mastered it, too. They can also rattle off a sampling of catchers that would make any organization salivate: Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores (majors), Jhonatan Solano (Triple-A), Norris (Double-A), Sandy Leon (Single-A Potomac) and David Freitas (Single-A Hagerstown).
As the Nationals have gone about developing their farm system, they’ve amassed an embarrassment of riches at catcher.
“We do” have a wealth of talent, director of player development Doug Harris said with a chuckle when asked about the organization’s catching stockpile. “We really do.”
They’re also facing a crossroads with some of that depth.
With Ramos set to fully take over as the everyday catcher — after a rookie season during which he hit .267 with 15 homers and developed a strong rapport with the pitchers — the Nationals will have to decide where the rest fit in. Flores is tearing up the Venezuelan Winter League (.397 average) after a full season of health, but he doesn’t fancy himself a backup.
“I don’t feel like a second catcher,” Flores said in September. “I know what I have done before, and I know that I had two tough years, but I feel healthy. I am healthy, and I know I can do the same job as a No. 1 catcher.”
And Norris, whose .210 average in Double-A is the only slight evaluators can come up with, has reached his option year. Either the Nationals put him on the 40-man roster in the coming days or they risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft. With his 20 homers, a plus arm, advanced strike zone knowledge and .367 on-base percentage in 2011, it’s not a stretch to consider another team scooping Norris up if Washington left him unprotected. Especially in the midst of an Arizona Fall League season, during which he’s impressed with a .339 batting average, .443 OBP and .482 slugging percentage despite not playing every day and catching only every third day.
“My average [stunk],” Norris said, “but I still felt like I made some mental strides. I feel like I’m a better hitter even though it didn’t show. … I took a lot of pitches to get behind in the count, and I wasn’t attacking the baseball. Me and my hitting coach [Troy Gingrich] were talking at the end of the year, and whenever I put the bat on the baseball, I batted close to .400. That showed me something.”
It showed the Nationals something, too. Asked recently about Norris, general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t seem to consider any option for 2012 that would leave Norris out of the organization. He’s also made no secret that the Nationals feel they finally have enough depth system-wide to pull off a trade, if need be. Whether they try to deal a catcher this offseason, it appears Norris’ future is in Washington.
“We know he can hit,” Rizzo said. “We know he’s got power, he’s a high on-base-percentage guy and he’s got a short stroke. He’s got a plus ark, and now his feet are working and pitchers love throwing to him. That’s a really exciting package for us going into next season.”
The Nationals have not finalized their 40-man roster (which is at 32) and don’t have to do so until Nov. 18. But one team official reiterated Rizzo’s point: The Nationals value Norris appropriately, and he’s clearly under strong consideration for the team’s 40-man. If not, he’s putting on quite a showcase in the AFL for other teams thinking about selecting him as a possible Rule 5 and stashing him away for a year on their 25-man roster — the same way the Nationals acquired Flores from the Mets in 2006.
“After the 40-man stuff comes out, we’ll see where we’re at,” said Norris, who was a non-roster invitee to major league spring training in 2011. “If I’m not on it, then hopefully I’m a Rule 5 and we’ll see where it goes.”