Derek Norris was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB Draft from the Kansas prep ranks. He started his professional career at the age of 18 in 2007 at the Gulf Coast Rookie level where he hit an unspectacular .203/.344/.382 with only four home runs in 151 plate appearances. By all accounts he was an unpolished product who would need quite a bit of time to refine his skills both behind the plate and with the lumber.
The Nationals took a very conservative approach with Norris and moved him up to Low-A Vermont of the NY/Penn League for the 2008 season where he would begin to show the skills to which we are all now accustomed. He hit a solid .278/.444/.463 with 10 home runs and even contributed 11 stolen bases over 302 plate appearances. It was this season that saw Norris make huge strides with his plate approach and overall on-base skills.
His success in 2008 earned him a promotion to Class-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League in 2009 and the success he had in Vermont carried right over. He posted an impressive .286/.413/.513 slash line with 23 home runs, 84 RBI's and 6 stolen bases over 540 plate appearances. For the first time he was really able to tap into his power while maintaining a solid approach and by all accounts broke out as a prospect. He was rated the 38th best prospect by Baseball America and his success in Hagerstown thrust him to the national prospect scene.
Still maintaining their conservative approach, the Nationals moved Norris up to Class-A Advanced Potomac of the Carolina League for the 2010 season. Norris hit a snag in terms of his offensive production as his numbers dipped to .235/.419/.419 with 12 home runs and six stolen bases over 399 plate appearances while dealing with multiple injuries.Despite the injuries, Norris was able to show he had a good understanding of how to get on base and the numbers reflected that. Baseball America still believed in Norris as a prospect, although to a lesser degree, and had him listed as the 72nd best prospect entering 2011.
The Nats moved Norris up to Double-A Harrisburg of the Eastern League and Norris went on to hit .210/.367/.446 with 20 home runs and three steals over 423 plate appearances. Obviously the batting average dipped quite a bit against the superior pitching, but Norris was still able to get on base at a good clip while flashing solid power. It was at the end of this season that the Nationals saw an opportunity to make a franchise changing trade and Norris, along with Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, and A.J. Cole, were shipped to Oakland for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez.
Now a part of the Oakland A's organization, Norris started the 2012 season with Triple-A Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League. He regained his approach at the plate and posted a bounce back line of .271/.329/.477 with nine home runs and five steal in only 246 plate appearances before being called up to replace the ineffective Kurt Suzuki as the full-time backstop for the A's.
*Before we jump into how Norris performed while wearing the green and gold it is worth mentioning that Norris was able to not only grow as a hitter throughout his minor league career but also as a very strong defensive backstop. Each and every season since is professional debut in 2007 he improved his fielding percentage while managing to throw out 39% of would be base stealers on average. Why does this matter? because if Norris is performing at a high level defensively he is more likely to see at-bats and the more at-bats the more opportunity for him to contribute offensively. Viola! Defense matters in fantasy baseball more than people think especially for catchers.
While a member of the swinging A's Norris put up a pretty unspectacular line of .203/.276/.349 with seven home runs and five stolen bases over 232 plate appearances. Not exactly what fantasy players are looking for in a starting catcher. However, the numbers on the surface tell a different story than the peripherals. If his small sample size in 2012 was to be extrapolated over a full 162 games (something that will never happen as catchers rarely play more than 140 games) he would have hit 19 home runs and even more exciting, at least from a catching perspective, is that he would have contributed 14 stolen bases. We will talk about the stolen bases in a moment, but the 19 home runs are a good sign that Norris is going to be a solid contributor in the power department and solid power production is very valuable from the catcher spot in all fantasy formats. Another thing to consider with regards to Norris and his plate approach is that he is never going to be a guy who supports a high BABIP due to his fly ball tendencies but his .255 BABIP is still remarkably low and even a marginal change in his BABIP would result in a higher average which bodes well for his future value.
Now on to the stolen bases. Norris is a big dude. He checks in a 6'0 210lbs., but honestly he looks like he weights at least 20lbs more. I mention his size because traditionally catchers are not considered light on their feet and for the most part are regarded as base cloggers. Seriously, aside from Yadier Molina, I can't think of a single catcher in today's game that who is threat to steal double digit bases in 2013. Not one. Enter Derek Norris. He is young enough to still have some juice in his legs and he has proven in the minors that he is capable of swiping bags. That coupled with the fact that the A's are very aggressive on the base paths there is a real shot for Norris, given enough playing time, to steal 10+ bases in 2013. 10-15 stolen bases doesn't seem like much in the grand scheme of a fantasy baseball season but if you have a guy in a position where 0-5 steals is considered a successful season doubling that production you have an advantage. Tack those 10-15 steals onto 20-25 home runs and 60 RBI's along with a .250 batting average and you are turning a big profit behind the plate.
Here are the three things that I think Norris can add to your team in 2013:
Power: This is probably the biggest and most obvious contribution he will make in 2013. He has the plate approach and strength to hit upwards of 20 home runs in 2013 with an outside shot at hitting 30. His power is that real. The A's made it very clear in 2012 that they are a power first team and that batting average is less of a priority so you better believe Norris has the green light to swing for the fences.
At-bats: As it stands now Norris is in the catbird seat to receive the bulk of the at-bats in Oakland as only George Kottaras poses a threat and even that is mild. With 420-440 at-bats Norris is going to have an opportunity to showcase his power as well as his on-base skills something that his minor league track record shows he is very good at. I expect him to make large strides in his OBP skills in his sophomore season and I think invariably his batting average will improve along with it.
Stolen Bases: This is where I am willing to go out on a limb. I truly believe that Norris has a shot of stealing between 10-15 bases next season for a couple of reasons. He has shown the skill in the minors and briefly in the majors, the A's tend to be aggressive on the base paths, and he has a solid foundation of getting on-base at a good clip (minor league career .394 OBP). I think all of those things couple with the fact he will see a lot of playing time bode well for him to be a sneaky source of steals in 2013.
As it stands now Norris is rated as FakeTeams 23rd best catcher and personally I think that is too low. This upcoming season I would rather have Norris in a standard redraft league over guys like Pierzynski, Ellis, Grandal (due to suspension), Martin, Avila, and the Arencibia/d'Arnaud combo.
I expect his draft price to be somewhere after round 15 but before round 20 in standard redraft leagues. If you can grab him around round 18 I think there is a very real possibility that he will deliver a very good profit. I truly believe in Norris as a legit fantasy contributor and I think that he could very well have a career similar to Mike Napoli and probably be able to duplicate Napoli's 2012 season next year. Norris fits the bill of a high power, high OBP catcher with good instincts and a good foundation. I could easily see him developing into a .250-.260 hitter with 20-25 home runs seasons regularly in his peak.
TO SUM IT UP: A young catcher with an opportunity to deliver in the power department. Will not help out much in terms of batting average as hitting even .250 might be too aggressive considering his approach. A sneaky source of steals who will be way undervalued on draft day.
2013 Bold Prediction: .237/.348/.449, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 49 R, and 11 SB in 433 PA.