The Nationals’ reported two-year agreement with Matt Wieters (which contains a player option/opt-out clause after the first season) gives the team four catchers on the 40-man roster, as Wieters now joins Derek Norris, Jose Lobaton and young Pedro Severino. While Severino was likely to open the year in the minors anyhow, the addition of Wieters immediately made it apparent that the Nats were likely to explore deals involving their remaining two MLB backstops.
Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post wrote this week that manager Dusty Baker strongly implied that the team would gauge interest in Norris, and FanRag’s Jon Heyman wrote today that the Nats are “trying to trade” Norris, citing sources from other clubs that have been contacted by the Washington front office. The Post’s Barry Svrluga adds to the Norris trade buzz as well, tweeting that his expectation is that Norris will be traded. That’d leave the Nats with Wieters and Lobaton to comprise their primary catching corps (with Severino, of course, in the wings at Triple-A).
Unquestionably, Norris’ value was higher a year ago than it is at present. The former Padres and Athletics receiver (who was originally drafted by the Nats in 2007) posted quality offensive numbers from 2013-15 but limped to a dismal .186/.255/.328 batting line in 458 plate appearances last season. That was about 45 percent worse than the league-average bat, per park-adjusted metrics like OPS+ and wRC+, leading many (myself included) to wonder about the possibility of Norris simply being non-tendered by the Padres this winter. Instead, San Diego tendered him a contract and traded him back to the Nats, who avoided arbitration with Norris on a one-year deal worth $4.2MM.
Though his 2016 production (or lack thereof) diminishes Norris’ trade value, there’s also still reason to believe that the Nats could find a taker. Norris only just turned 28 years of age last week, and he’s just one season removed from a .250/.305/.404 batting line that is more than passable for a catcher. From 2013-15 he hit a combined .256/.333/.405, and he’s clubbed left-handed pitching at a .276/.353/.453 clip in his career as well (even including last year’s woeful output).
Norris has received well-above-average marks in pitch framing over the past two seasons, and while he’s been inconsistent in controlling the running game on a year-to-year basis, his career caught-stealing rate checks in at a roughly average mark of 26 percent. (He’s been as high as 34 percent in 2015 and as low as 17 percent in 2014.) Furthermore, Norris has two years of club control remaining. If he’s able to bounce back following a trade, his new team would have the option of retaining him through the 2018 season via arbitration. For a club without a clear answer at catcher or a rebuilding squad that could look to flip a rejuvenated Norris sometime in the next nine months, the extra year of control carries some appeal.
The majority of clubs around the league are set when it comes to a starting catcher, but there are still clubs where Norris can either slot in as a veteran backup or compete with a less-proven option for regular at-bats.
Looking around the league, here’s a rundown of some speculative landing spots for the 28-year-old Norris…
- Angels: The Halos were connected to Wieters at length over the past several months, but his price tag would’ve brought them extremely close to the competitive balance/luxury tax threshold. Anaheim is currently set to deploy light-hitting Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez as its two primary backstops in 2017, though. For a club that hopes to reverse its fortunes in the American League West this season, that duo doesn’t come with an inspiring track record with the bat. Norris’ $4.2MM salary should be far more palatable for the Angels as well, and the cost of acquisition figures to be low, as the Nats are motivated to deal him. (In other words, the Angels’ lousy farm system won’t be a major deterrent in a deal.)
- Blue Jays: Toronto was tied to numerous veteran backups over the course of the winter but watched nearly all of them sign elsewhere. Now that they’ve released A.J. Jimenez, their primary candidates to back up Russell Martin are non-roster invitee Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose was nearly as bad as Norris with the bat last season, and winter waiver claim Juan Graterol — a light-hitting minor league veteran with a solid glove. Saltalamacchia’s never been considered a great defensive catcher, and Graterol has less upside on offense. The Jays, though, may not be keen on paying $4.2MM to a backup, considering their payroll is already projected to be about $163MM.
- Brewers: Milwaukee reportedly kept tabs on Wieters in free agency, and their starting catching role is up for grabs at the moment, as MLBTR’s Jason Martinez recently profiled. Andrew Susac, Jett Bandy and Manny Pina are all in the mix for work behind the plate. If none of those options thrill the Brewers, there’s certainly room for Norris and his $4.2MM salary in the Brewers’ modest $66.4MM payroll (as Jason projects at Roster Resource).
- Diamondbacks: The D-backs seemingly have had some semblance of interest in every catcher with a pulse this winter, and while the cupboard is well-stocked with options for new manager Torey Lovullo, uncertainty still abounds in Phoenix. Currently, the D-backs will see Jeff Mathis, Chris Iannetta and Chris Herrmann vie for playing time. Non-roster invitees Hank Conger and Josh Thole are also on the periphery of the picture. Admittedly, the Diamondbacks feel like a reach, but the team’s new front office seems set on creating significant depth at the position.
- Rays: Another team that was heavily linked to Wieters near the end of his free agency, the Rays are set to open the season with some combination of Luke Maile, Curt Casali, Jesus Sucre and Michael McKenry behind the plate. (The latter two are in camp as non-roster invites.) Wilson Ramos was signed to a two-year deal this winter, so there’s some help on the way later in 2017, but Norris certainly seems like a reasonable fit to pair with one of the less-experienced options currently on the 40-man roster. And even when Ramos is healthy, he’ll likely see plenty of time at DH as he eases back into the rigors of an MLB schedule in the wake of last year’s ACL tear.
- Rockies: Reports on the Rockies all winter have suggested that they’re content with young backstops Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy. There’s little reason to doubt that the Rox are pleased with that duo (and with Dustin Garneau serving as a Triple-A depth option), but Norris would bring more experience to the table, which could help with what looks to be a very youthful pitching staff.
- Twins: Chris Gimenez and John Ryan Murphy are slated to battle for the backup gig in Minnesota, where Jason Castro will suit up as the starter in the first season of a three-year, $24.5MM deal. Neither has much of a track record at the plate, though Gimenez is a known commodity to both chief baseball officer Derek Falvey (from his time with Cleveland) and GM Thad Levine (from his time in Texas). Norris’ career marks against lefties and solid framing numbers make him a logical partner for Castro, and the two could form somewhat of a rough platoon. As is the case with the Jays, Norris would be a costly backup, though the Twins’ $94.6MM payroll projection suggests that there’s room to accommodate the salary.
- White Sox: The Pale Hose once again look set to entrust the bulk of their at-bats at catcher to Geovany Soto, who signed a minor league deal to return to the Sox this winter (and is reported to have an excellent chance of making the club). Unproven Omar Narvaez is on hand as a backup option, and the Triple-A ranks in Chicago don’t offer considerably more hope. The Sox and Nats are no strangers to trade talks this winter, and there have been rumors that the ChiSox would be interested in Pedro Severino in a deal involving closer David Robertson. Norris wouldn’t be a significant piece in a Robertson deal, though he could be thrown in along with a few prospects to help balance out the financial component of a deal. Alternatively — and perhaps more likely — he could be obtained in a smaller deal that doesn’t include any notable big league pieces going back to the Nats.