After he had caught Livan Hernandez’s four-inning stint in a minor league game Sunday morning, Derek Norris was collecting his things and preparing to return to the big league complex when Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo pulled him aside and grabbed his shoulder.
“Great job today,” Rizzo said. “Very impressive.”
“Thank you, sir,” Norris said.
Minutes later, Hernandez went out of his way to praise Norris’s pitch-calling and handling behind the plate.
Every spring training camp has that one young player who makes a strong impression and, even though there is no spot for him on the big league roster, leaves little doubt that his time is coming soon. In this camp, that player is Derek Norris.
“I’ll tell you: He really had been one of the more impressive guys in camp,” Manager Jim Riggleman said of Norris on Monday. “He came [into camp] in great shape. He really looks good at the plate. His catching is coming along. We really think he’s going to be a big league catcher. ... He kind of gives you that [Josh] Willingham feeling up there as a hitter. He’s kind of built like Willingham and knows the strike zone like Willingham, and we think he’s going to have similar power to Willingham.”
The biggest question about Norris, 22, has always been whether he had the skills to remain at catcher, or whether he would eventually be moved. But the Nationals say that is no longer a question.
“We feel like he’s going to catch, period,” Riggleman said. “The strides he’s made with our instructors throughout the system and with Bob Boone, we’re really seeing that he can catch.”
But Norris almost certainly won’t catch at the big league level in 2011, since he has yet to play above Class A. Last season, he was limited to 94 games at Potomac (.235/.419/.419) because of a concussion. He is likely to be sent to Class AA Harrisburg this season.
For now, Norris’s path to the majors is blocked by Ivan Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores, two of whom will comprise the Nationals’ big league catching tandem this season. Rodriguez will almost certainly be gone by 2012, but Ramos (only 23) and Flores (26) are young enough to make for a difficult situation at some point -- which is why many observers both inside and outside the organization expect the Nationals to trade one of their catchers at some point (provided Flores proves himself healthy).
“It wasn’t long ago the organization was really thin at catching -- as recently as ‘09,” Riggleman said. “Right now ... it’s an area where we’re a little stronger now, but this is where we need to be. You’ve got to have catching depth.”