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Finally healthy, Derek Norris takes on the Arizona Fall League

When Nationals catching prospect Derek Norris arrived in the Florida Instructional League last month, he was amazed when he took his first few swings. Norris, the Nationals' top position player prospect before they drafted Bryce Harper, felt no pain in his left hand. His hand ached all season this year, and he had forgotten what it felt to swing without it hurting.

"I really did," Norris said. "It's nice to swing a bat and not feel any pain."

In a very small sample size so far in the Arizona Fall League, the difference shows. Norris, while facing mostly pitchers who played this year at Class AA, is 5 for 13 with four walks, a home run, a triple, a double and six strikeouts. On Tuesday night, he roped a triple to left-center in his first at-bat with his quick, powerful swing.

It's been a refreshing start for Norris, who never felt 100 percent at Class A Potomac this season after a string of unfortunate events. Shortly after turning 21, Norris began spring training in major league camp. The Nationals realize now that may have been a mistake. Norris probably was not ready, and he did not get enough at-bats to find a rhythm.

The start was not ideal, and Norris's season just got worse. At the end of spring training, he injured his left hand, which in the offseason had required surgery to remove a hamate bone. There was no correlation - "just a freak deal sliding into second," Norris said. But Norris, who missed several games, feels he rushed back, and the symptoms from the hamate surgery never fully went away until he arrived in the Instructional League.

The scariest moment came in May, when a fastball struck Norris in the head and knocked him out. He was rushed to the hospital and suffered a concussion. He missed another week-plus of games, and he played only 94 total.

"I mean, things happen," Norris said. "It's just how you bounce back. Obviously, people struggle. I did. I did a lot. Now that it's passed, I feel like I'm back where I need to be. I feel like I'm in a good place as far as physical concerns."

Even for a down year, Norris did not lose his best asset at the plate: his batting eye. Despite hit .235 average, Norris walked 89 times in 399 plate appearances and punched up a .419 on-base percentage, the best in the Carolina League by 22 points.

Norris's advanced, patient approach at the plate is his most valuable attribute. Norris's low batting average happened largely because of his 94 strikeouts. Many of those were actually a byproduct of his strike-zone discipline. To keep Norris from getting frustrated, they told him not to expand his strike zone: They believe that he was a better judge of the strike zone than many of the umpires in the Carolina League.

"Honestly, I would much rather him ring me up on strike three than start swinging at it knowing it's going to be a ball down the road, anyway," Norris said. "I just kind of go about my business the way I'm comfortable. It's just kind of how I go about it.

"From all the years of playing, for me, 99 percent of the time, whenever I see a pitch, I know whether it's a ball or strike. If we had the Quiz Tec or whatever it is that does the pitches, I feel like if we had that in A ball, I could go back and look at it and be about 99 percent right."

At the end of the year, Norris didn't mind what the approach made some of his stats look like. Norris, unlike many young players, grasps that on-base percentage is a far more meaningful measure than batting average.

"Ultimately, in the team end, as far as the team aspect of things, it's good for somebody to have a high on-base percentage," Norris said. "I'm not really a huge numbers guy, stats and all that. It's good to have a high average. Home runs and RBIs, those are all good. Virtually, those are numbers that are going to get you arbitration money. That's pretty much all they are. But in the end, in the team aspect - slugging, on-base, scoring a lot of runs."

Now that he's healthy, Norris will likely improve all his other numbers, too. Scouts rave about his compact swing. But then, the Nationals, even after his batting average dipped this year, have never worried about his offense. "He's always hit the ball," Scottsdale/Class AA Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr said.

The thing Norris is focused on most in Arizona is his catching defense. He has made improvements over his career, but some scouts wonder if he has the footwork to become a major league catcher. He was "shaky" in his first game catching, Knorr said, "but he made some improvement catching already." On Tuesday night, he allowed a stolen base on a throw well wide of second and let a curveball trickle through his legs.

Norris is determined to prove he can and will be a catcher in the majors. His primary mission in the fall league is "just to keep proving the doubters," Norris said. "There's always been doubts about my defense. Can he be durable behind the plate? I feel like I can. I'm out here just to prove to everybody that I can do that. Just trying to give everybody a good look at all the tools I worked so hard to accomplish."

If Norris remains a catcher, he faces a challenging path to the majors. The Nationals traded for Wilson Ramos, a defensive stud with potential for power, and installed him as their likely catcher of the future. Jesus Flores, after missing an entire season with complications from a shoulder injury, encouragingly turned heads in the Instructional League. Norris is not concerned about any of that.

"Everybody has got competition throughout the organization," Norris said. "Starting pitchers with Strasburg, closing pitchers with Storen. You can go on and on and on. Everybody has competition you have to beat out and out-perform. That's just the way I'm going to go about it, just play the game the right way. I think if you just continue to play the right way, play hard, I think everything should work for itself."

For now, Norris is happy to be healthy and to be here in Arizona, surrounded by some of the sport's most promising prospects. At 21, Norris is one of the younger players in the league. He knows, even after a challenging season, that he belongs.

"The level of play - the way I've always been is, rise to the occasion," Norris said. "The best is on the mound, so I perform the best. This crew around here really suits me. I'm real comfortable around the clubhouse. It's real nice."

By Adam Kilgore  | October 20, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
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Next: It's official: Bryce Harper is in the lineup at the Arizona Fall League


I have been following baseball for almost 50 years, and have lived in the New York, Philadelphia, and DC media markets. I can never remember a newspaper sending a beat writer to cover the AZ Fall League, but I guess you need something for the fans to read in place of stories about how the team seems not to be pursuing Adam Dunn, whom the Detroit New says is going to be offered a blank check by the Tigers the moment he becomes a free agent.

Posted by: Fairfax6 | October 20, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Combining Adam Kilgore's post with the previous comment, I've wonder if the Nationals' best move wouldn't be to move Norris to first base. If he's healthy, his bat will be ready for the Majors by 2012. It's his glove that's the problem.

I can't but suspect that the team would be better off if instead of trying to turn him into an, at best, so-so defensive catcher, let him be a solid defensive first baseman who has genuine .900-plus OPS potential.

Posted by: hisownfool1 | October 20, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Adam, this was a great post. It's really nice to hear more about Norris and the other young Nats in the pipeline, particularly how they are doing in the AFL.

Posted by: Natsgal | October 20, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Just what I was thinking.

Norris' defense may be questionable behind the plate but this team already has a top prospect behind Ivan Rodriguez.

We don't have anyone at first base to develop.

If he can consistently swing the bat this season the Nats should consider moving him for 2012.

Posted by: RoyHobbs4 | October 20, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

"I have been following baseball for almost 50 years, and have lived in the New York, Philadelphia, and DC media markets. I can never remember a newspaper sending a beat writer to cover the AZ Fall League"

Perhaps you weren't paying attention last year when Strasburg was there and the Post covered it?

Posted by: FeelWood | October 20, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Fairfax6, think back over your 50 years and tell me the last prospect that matches Harper's situation.

Thanks Adam for being there.

Posted by: 3B11 | October 20, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I think Norris is right. Because of the way the team has developed, we tend to feel overstocked if there are two players in the system who can play any given position adequately. It's normal to have people competing for starting jobs. Right now, for instance, we seem to have either a potential right fielder or a potential first baseman for next year, though not both, and maybe neither. But three potential catchers. Which is good.

Posted by: markfromark | October 20, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

If you can play the team will find a spot for you or trade you to a team that can use you, like what happened to Ramos. Hopefully his defense and offense continues to improve.

As for the blank check, congrats to Adam, that will buy alot of bubble gum.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | October 20, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

This guy is going to be an absolute stud. He'll surely help lead the Nationals to almighty 4th place in the NL East.

Go Norris!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: DixonTheDog | October 20, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Hamate surgery normally takes 12 months to fully recover from - Norris had his done in September of last year, so the timing is about right. His eye at the plate never left him, just the ability to drive balls into the gaps.

Defensively, he's had some issues with pitches in the dirt & passed balls, but is improving there. He has a very good arm though (4 of 5 CS in AFL play to date). Norris turns 22 in February - Another year or two in the minors isn't going to leave the Nationals with a gaping hole behind the plate, imo.

Posted by: BinM | October 20, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

"Fairfax6, think back over your 50 years and tell me the last prospect that matches Harper's situation."

Darryl Strawberry. Yeah, he blew it with drugs/booze/extremely bad attitude. But he was in fact at least as highly regarded a prospect as Harper.

"Perhaps you weren't paying attention last year when Strasburg was there and the Post covered it?"

Yes, gosh, how could I have missed that? So there is precedent for this! Only reinforces my point as to how pathetic this franchise is that such coverage is given to one of the lowest levels of competitive baseball, particularly in an age when newspapers are so reluctant to pay for reporters to go on the road. And the situation with Strasburg should serve as a cautionary tale for trying to hype a miserable franchise by annointing so many saviors. They're prospects. They may never make it, for any number of reasons.

And that's all the time I have to respond to someone with a posting handle that's apparently a reference to his favorite hobby, onanism. Feel it good, FeelWood.

Posted by: Fairfax6 | October 21, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Fairfax6, okay so this is the second time in the last 50 years that a prospect of this level has come along.

Seems news worthy to me. Or do you just have an ax to grind? After a while it just becomes noise.

Posted by: 3B11 | October 21, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Fairfax6, what's your point? It offends you that the hometown newspaper is covering prospects for the Nats? Isn't that a good thing? I for one follow baseball because of prospect development as much as the big league product. I’d much rather root for a player on my team that I’ve followed through the minors than one that was bought like most of the players in New York. I hope that if the Nationals ever become contenders that the Post and other media outlets in this town still cover the AFL and all prospect development. If you think the Post covering this is too “small town” then go back to NY or Philly, sounds to me like you’d be a better fit there anyway.

Posted by: VTBilliam | October 22, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

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