Derek Norris’ bad start led only to more desperation last season, the kind that baseball’s relentless daily calendar can deliver. A consistent baseball mantra is that everything can be fixed the next day, which is the beauty of how the sport is mapped out. It’s also how a snowball turns into an avalanche.
“It was a scuffle,” Norris said. “I got off to a bad start and I’m not big into excuses, so I’m not going to say this and that, this and that. I got buried early and I tried to get four hits every single day to make up for lost time and before I knew it, it was June. By the time June comes, not a whole lot you can do about it. Last year was last year. It’s not what I’m about. I think everyone knows that’s not the type of offensive player I am and that’s what I’m out to show this year.”
The Nationals’ new, and presumably main, catcher had an offensive season he labeled “awful.” The numbers back his assessment: Norris hit .186. His on-base percentage was .255. He struck out 139 times and hit safely just 77 times. Only his home run totals remained level with the player he has been in the past, a competent hitter who was an American League all-star just two seasons ago and one Washington has pitched as a bounce-back candidate to replace a key hitter.
“I think anyone that plays this game knows everyone has a down year,” Norris said. “Hopefully, that was mine. Well, lord I hope that was mine.”
Norris’ bottom-scraping season drove down his trade cost. The Nationals were able to acquire him from the San Diego Padres for minor-league right-handed pitcher Pedro Avila, a 19 year old on the fringe of Single-A ball who has been piling up strikeouts at least four steps below the major-league level.
Norris remains young by baseball standards. He’s 27, and has played 557 games in five seasons. For a catcher, that is a low level of wear. For a baseball player, that is also often the age of advancement.
The issue for the Nationals is that Norris will be replacing a man who was an all-star last season and arguably the league’s best hitting catcher. Wilson Ramos hit .307 with a career-high 22 home runs. His bat lengthened the Nationals’ lineup so much that manager Dusty Baker lamented not having it in the playoffs after Ramos tore his ACL Sept. 27.
“Wilson had a great year,” Norris said. “His hitting numbers were up there with some of the best in the last 10 years of catchers. I’m not looking to come in here and say I’m going to hit .320 with 20 home runs and drive in 100. Who knows? It could happen. I’m not saying it is or is not going to happen.”
Ramos’ injury popped Jose Lobaton and rookie Pedro Severino into action. Lobaton hit a memorable three-run home run in the National League Division Series. Severino was just 1-for-10 in the playoffs.
Lobaton signed a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. Severino, who does not turn 24 until next July, was called the “catcher of the future” this offseason by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. The offseason moves have made the pecking order at catcher next season appear clear. Lobaton, who Ryan Zimmerman said is one of the most underrated defensive catchers in the league, will again be the backup. Norris will start. Severino will wait.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Lobaton said of the trade. “I was like, ‘OK, what’s next? What are they going to do with Sevi, me and Derek?’ That was my first question. Then I figured out that I can’t do anything [about it] and I just have to show up at spring training and do my best.”
Norris expects familiarity will help him. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Nationals in 2007. Current third base coach Bob Henley was his manager in in rookie ball, catching coordinator and “like a second dad to me,” Norris said. Current hitting coach Rick Schu was Norris’ hitting instructor for two seasons in the past.
He never made it to the major leagues with the organization. Norris was traded in 2011 as part of the deal that fetched Gio Gonzalez for Washington. Three years later, he was at the All-Star Game with an Oakland Athletics uniform on. He wants to repeat the results in his first jersey.