2/21 Update: The Nationals have been reported to reach an agreement with free agent catcher Matt Wieters. Derek Norris is likely the odd man out of Washington D.C.. In December the Nationals traded A ball pitching prospect Pedro Avila to the Padres for Norris. Norris is scheduled to make $4.20MM in 2017 with one more trip through arbitration available in 2018.
San Diego Padres catcher Derek Norris should be a target that the Ray pursue as they look to find their catcher for 2017. Norris is projected to make $4.0MM in his 2nd year of arbitration, and should only make around $10MM over the last two trips through arbitration making him affordable for the Rays.
Why the Rays should be interested?
Derek Norris has the track record of being an asset with the bat behind the plate while providing value defensively. The potential injury during the second half of 2016 is definitely a concern and would need to be checked out.
Over his four full seasons in the majors he has been worth 1.0, 3.3, 1.4, and 2.4 WARP. Even with a replacement level bat in 2016 he was worth 1 win on defense. Norris has spent his career in offensive challenged parks with Oakland and San Diego, so Tropicana Field could be seen as a minor upgrade.
The last three years Norris has started 93, 116, and 113 games at catcher. In the past when the Rays have headed to the trade market they ended up with backups that they pushed into a larger role. Guys like Ryan Hanigan and Rene Rivera have ended up injured or overworked. Having a reasonable expectation of catching 100-120 games is a plus, and he hasn’t been ridden hard like Salvador Perez.
Derek Norris’s Glove
Over the last two seasons Derek Norris has graded well with a +7 DRS over 244 games and 2,023.2 innings behind the plate. Last season saw his Caught Stealing rate dropped to 20.8% from 34.3% in 2015, but that may return to form.
Most importantly, though, Derek Norris has been among the better pitch framers in baseball since moving to the Padres in 2015.
Over the past two seasons, Norris has contributed +21.3 runs behind the plate, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs. Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA (runs above average) credits Norris with +11.8 and +8.5 runs in each of the last two years.
Derek Norris’s Bat
Derek Norris is coming off a terrible 2016 with the bat. In 2016 he hit .186/.255/.328 good for a 55 wRC+. That would be worse than the Rays catchers hit as they put up a 66 wRC+. Jason Hanselman at TheProcessReport hypothesized that an injury could to be to blame for his disaster of a second half.
In the second half of 2016, Norris hit .144/.226/.206 and 18 wRC+. His strikeout rate spiked from 26.7% to 36.2% and his ISO tanked to .063, down from .192 in the first half.
The Rays would have to believe he is fully healthy for 2017. This is a legitimate concern as catchers breakdown earlier in careers than other position players, but Norris will be turning 28 in February.
And over the previous three years, Derek Norris wielded a potent bat. From 2013-2015 he hit .256/.333/.405 and 110 wRC+ over 1,307 PA. If the Rays believe his bat can return to near those levels he could be a solid option, even though he doesn’t fit the ideal scenario of a lefty/righty platoon partner for Curt Casali.
Norris has crushed lefties in his career. Before posting a 70 wRC+ in 2016, he put up 177, 149, and 124 wRC+ against left handed pitchers in the previous three years. His 126 wRC+ for his career against lefties compares favorably to Steve Pearce’s 130 wRC+. Pearce struggled in 2015 with a 65 wRC+. This can happen when you’re only getting 150 PA over a season against southpaws.
Against right handed pitchers he put up a 49 wRC+ line in 2016, but the previous two years he put up 107 and 89 wRC+ lines, which isn’t great, but fine for a good defensive catcher.
Why would the Padres trade him?
The Padres could decide that 2017 is the time to hand the reigns over to Austin Hedges as their starting catcher. He was once a top prospect in the system, but has received enough plate appearances to not qualify as a prospect any longer.
Hedges crushed AAA and likely doesn’t have anything to learn although he has struggled in his 178 PA in the majors over the last two years. If the Padres are willing to move Norris the Rays should inquire.
If the Rays and Padres can figure something out around players jamming the 40-man roster, like SS Tim Beckham or 3B Richie Shaffer, this would be a good deal for the Rays to potentially find their catcher for the next two seasons.
The Rays shouldn’t trade one of their top prospects for him, but he shouldn’t cost one coming off a weak 2016. Now is the perfect time to buy on what looks like a prototypical Rays catcher.