It's fairly clear at this point that player development is a non-linear function, and specifically that each individual player will develop at different speeds and different times .While there are things that can be generalized (younger at higher levels = Good, older at low levels = not so good), every player gets to their potential a little differently. Daniel Norris was drafted in the 2nd round by the Blue Jays back in 2011, and was considered a potential steal that late given his potential. However, he fell off the radar after a rough debut season in 2012, and was all but forgotten for fantasy purposes. Enter this year's performance and reports, and he's definitely back on the radar, slotting in at #35 on my midseason prospect rankings. How did we get here, and what could Norris do for your fantasy team?
Norris may end up being the best player from the Blue Jays' draft class of 2011, despite being the 2nd round draft pick and the 6th pick of the team in that draft. He was viewed as a potential first round pick his senior year, but considered a tough sign due to his commitment to Clemson. The Blue Jays grabbed him with the 74th overall pick, and gave him a $2 million bonus to forego college. The fact that the team was able to get him signed helped to soften the blow that came with them being unable to sign their top pick, right handed pitcher Tyler Beede.
He did not pitch that year professionally, and instead debuted in 2012 with the Blue Jays' Appy and Northwest League affiliates. The performance looked brutal (8.44 ERA, 1.78 WHIP), but 43 strikeouts and 18 walks in 42 innings pointed back to some of that first round potential. Our former colleague Andrew Ball noted the following as a part of our top 10 Toronto fantasy rankings from last offseason about that year:
Toronto said all the right things, crediting the down year to changes in his delivery and arm slot and an emphasis on developing his secondary pitches, but his prospect star dimmed significantly during that year.
The 2013 season brought better numbers (3.97 ERA, 1.445 WHIP, 100 K, 45 BB), and he finished the season strongly with an 0.62 ERA, 30 strikeouts, 9 walks, and just 15 hits allowed over 29 innings in the last month. He moved back up some prospect lists, but many (myself included) wanted to see the performance at the end of last year continue into 2014.
2014 has been a great year for Norris, who started the year at High-A Dunedin and has reached AAA already. In 113 innings pitched, he has 148 strikeouts, 36 walks, and just 87 hits allowed. He appeared at the Futures Game, and continues to pitch well at every stop he makes. Even AAA has been good for him so far, striking out 23 and walking just 1 batter across 11 innings and two starts there so far.
Norris relies upon a four-pitch repertoire of a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, with all four pitches having the potential to be average offerings or better. His fastball is considered his best offering, but both his slider and changeup also have seen above-average grades thrown on them in different reports. Norris appears to be a pitcher who has been able to successfully make adjustments to his delivery, which have led to more consistent performance and overall better results.
In terms of fantasy potential, Norris looks like he can be a mid-rotation starting pitcher, with seasons where he produces above that level and finishes in the top 20 amongst starting pitchers. When he's on, he is capable of providing elite strikeout totals, getting a lot of weak contact and potentially a lot of ground balls (45% on the season this year, and 51% last year per MLBfarm.com), and providing excellent numbers in both ERA and WHIP.
At the time my updated fantasy rankings came out, he was still at AA, and I gave a timeframe that he'd be up by the end of the 2015 season. However, the organization moved him up to AAA Buffalo the same week, and it looks more like he will have the potential to be in the bullpen for the end of this year, and get a shot at a rotation spot for the 2015 season. The most likely candidate to be displaced would be J.A. Happ, who has a club option for the 2015 season of $6.7 million, which could be declined to open a spot for Norris.
Norris is the reminder that when looking at prospects and players in dynasty formats, the stat line doesn't always tell the whole story, and that you may need to dig deeper to find out where the value really lies.
Norris is an interesting name to watch for the rest of this season, if only because he may be called up and become eligible to be owned in leagues where players must debut before being picked up. He is a must-target in any dynasty formats where he is available to own, and can provide dividends immediately upon his ascension to a starting rotation spot in the bigs.