Derek Norris Could Be a Great Match for St. Louis Cardinals

Feb 21, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Derek Norris (23) during spring training workouts at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 21, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Derek Norris (23) during spring training workouts at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Cardinals have an opportunity to make an upgrade at the backup catching position while strengthening their depth in the process, why not do so?

As Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and MLB Network reported on Sunday, the Washington Nationals have placed veteran catcher Derek Norris on waivers. The 28-year-old backstop has platooned or started in the majors for the past four seasons with the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres, and he was expected to be Washington’s starter until they signed Matt Wieters in late February.

Since the Nationals already have veteran backup José Lobatón and highly-regarded rookie Pedro Severino, Norris became expendable, and he’ll now likely hit the open market, as Heyman reports that he’s expected to be released if no team picks up his $4 million-dollar contract on waivers.

Norris had the worst offensive season of his big-league career in 2016, hitting just .186/.255/.328 over 458 plate appearances. He retained his status as an above-average power hitter, though, hitting 14 homers, including eight in Petco Park, which isn’t a power hitter’s paradise by any means. He’d been a solid if unspectacular contributor at the plate during his previous three seasons, posting an OPS above .700 in each of those campaigns while hitting double-digit homers in the latter two.

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At this stage, there aren’t many major-league teams for which Norris would be an upgrade as a starting catcher. The two that immediately come to mind are the Colorado Rockies and Chicago White Sox, but those teams appear set to rely on youth behind the plate rather than paying for a second-tier veteran.

While Norris might not be an attractive starter for many teams right now, he’d be a luxury as a backup for more than a few. One of those teams could be the St. Louis Cardinals, a club that’s had questions surrounding its backup catcher position all offseason (and for much of the last year, really).

The Cardinals have the top catching prospect in baseball in 22-year-old Carson Kelly, but they’ve expressed a desire to get him a full season of development in Triple-A after fast-tracking him from Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues over the course of 2016.

Thus, it seems that the Cardinals’ plan is to begin 2017 with non-roster invitee Eric Fryer, who was their backup for the first three months of 2016 before being designated for assignment and claimed on waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates, as their backup catcher. Fryer’s proven that he’s capable of succeeding in that role–he hit .368/.415/.421 over 41 plate appearances during his time with the Cardinals last season–but it’s safe to say that the 31-year-old is not a guy the Cardinals would want to be their starter if Yadier Molina went down with an injury.

Fryer hit just .218/.300/.269 over 92 plate appearances with Pittsburgh last season, and he didn’t hit any homers with either the Cardinals or Pirates. He’s got a solid .254/.332/.328 slash line over 291 career big-league plate appearances, but considering his numbers in Pittsburgh last season, it appears that he might be a guy who’d get exposed if he were to see extended big-league action.

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While Fryer has the advantage of being familiar with the pitching staff (as do Kelly and Rosario, at least to an extent), it’s safe to say that Norris would be a defensive upgrade over the incumbent. He’s a guy who has proven to be a strong option behind the plate judging by intangible, traditional, and new-school metrics. He’s done a great job of handling pitching staffs that have undergone a ton of turnover in both Oakland and San Diego, and while his caught stealing rate was down in 2016 (21%), he threw out an impressive 34% of runners on 128 attempts in 2015.

In addition, Norris has graded out well as a pitch framer (for what it’s worth) over the past two seasons. He was one of the league’s best pitch framers in 2015, and while his numbers in the category took a bit of a hit last season, he still finished ahead of highly-regarded defensive backstops such as Jonathan Lucroy and Jeff Mathis.

Seeing as the Cardinals have an increasingly flexible budget and are roughly $50 million away from the luxury tax threshold, the only way one could really be opposed to the Cardinals doing their due diligence on Norris–who’d likely come at a reduced rate–is if they have a particular desire for Fryer to be on the big-league roster.

Adding Norris would improve the Cardinals’ catching depth, which has repeatedly been an area of need, as they utilized six different catchers in 2016 and five in 2015. Since Fryer is signed to a minor-league deal, the Cardinals could keep him in reserve there without any issues, and before you complain about Fryer possibly stealing playing time away from Kelly, realize that even the most durable of Triple-A catchers rests for two or three days a week because of a variety of factors such as the condensed schedule, more grueling travel, inferior  training and therapeutic resources, and a greater number of climates which feature temperatures exceeding 100 degrees during the summer. Simply put, a veteran catching partner isn’t going to create any problems for Kelly.

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If Molina suffers a serious injury–as he did in every season from 2013-15 before reaffirming his status as an ironman last season–the Cardinals will certainly want someone better than Fryer to handle the everyday starting duties. While Kelly might be capable of filling that role this season, he hasn’t translated his minor-league success to the big-league level. Granted, that’s over a very small sample size, but if they can buy Kelly a guaranteed additional season of minor-league development while adding a better full-time backup for Molina in the process, why not?