WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — By late Wednesday morning, all that remained of Derek Norris‘s second chance with the Washington Nationals were a few taped-up boxes next to a pair of white team-issued baseball pants he will never wear again. The dozen or so hangers in his locker hung in a neat row, and Norris himself sat in a big red chair in the clubhouse, obliging the occasional hug and handshake before heading out for good.
The Nationals granted Norris his unconditional release on Wednesday, and in so doing ensured they would be responsible for only one-sixth of the $4.2 million he was owed this season. Now, Norris is free to negotiate with any team he pleases, though his dreams of reviving his career with the team that drafted him shriveled when the Nationals signed Matt Wieters late last month.
“I’m very familiar with a lot of the coaching staff and a lot of the guys in here. So for sure it’s a bummer,” Norris said. “But it’s part of it. I enjoyed it while it lasted.”
The Nationals traded for Norris from the San Diego Padres in December in exchange for low-level minor league pitcher Pedro Avila. Norris, a 2014 all-star, batted just .186 with San Diego in 2016, and the Padres wanted to clear the way for younger players. The Nationals needed a replacement for Wilson Ramos, and decided they could bet $4.2 million on a player they drafted in 2007 and developed into their Minor League Player of the Year a few years later. At the time, Norris seemed likely to be the Nationals starting catcher — unless, of course, they could get another all-star at a sale price.
Then Wieters’s price dropped, enough for Nationals ownership to engage another Scott Boras client and bring in the four-time all-star on a two-year contract worth $21 million with an opt out after this season. The Nationals initially tried to find a trade partner for the 28-year-old Norris, but found no market for him. They placed him on waivers over the weekend, but no team bit, knowing Norris was headed to free agency in just a few days and would cost significantly less then. Norris has options remaining, but the Nationals did not want to send their former farmhand to the minors — nor pay $4.2 million for a backup to Wieters. So, after a hot spring in which he is 6 for 17 with two home runs, the Nationals released him.
“He handled it like a professional, handled it like a man,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, noticeably subdued as he spoke about the decision. “He still was busting his butt playing, trying to help pitchers. I didn’t know him before he got here, but he’d be an asset to any team. He would’ve been an asset to us as well. It just didn’t work out.”
Norris had settled into good rapport with his teammates, many of whom he knew from his minor league days. Though he and everyone else around the Nationals viewed his departure as an imminent inevitability, Norris did not withdraw in the clubhouse, spending free moments engaged in heated card games or joking with his neighbors in the back corner of the locker room. Early Wednesday morning, he was stretching out in front of the WBC game, quoting lines from “Dumb and Dumber.” As of noon, he was no longer wearing Nationals gear as he said his goodbyes and readied to leave.
“Like I said before, whether you’re wearing red or white or purple or green, you’ve still got to come out here and do your job,” Norris said. “But so far with two weeks left in spring training, I feel like I’ve done everything I can to prepare for a season. And hopefully here in a couple days, I’ll be with a team that I’ve got a good shot of breaking camp with and go out and have a good year.”
The Tampa Bay Times has reported that the Rays might have interest in Norris, who could start until Ramos is ready to return from his torn anterior cruciate ligament later this summer. The Colorado Rockies also lost potential big league catcher Tom Murphy to injury this week, and could need help behind the plate. Norris’s market will undoubtedly grow without that $4.2 million price tag attached to him, and the Nationals can now move forward without an awkward logjam of catchers. Wieters will start, Jose Lobaton will back up, and Pedro Severino can begin the season at Class AAA Syracuse.