Mere days ahead of the 2016 MLB All-Star Break, the Washington Nationals find themselves atop the National League East standings, a few games ahead of the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. However, as we have seen in the past few years, leading the division in July does not guarantee winning the pennant in October.
With this in mind, the Nationals front office certainly has begun looking ahead to the upcoming trade deadline and how they can improve their roster for the stretch run. While most people agree the team’s biggest need is in the bullpen, I think the team could also use another bat to sure up their bench and provide depth in case injuries. I believe the Nationals should try to procure catcher and first baseman Derek Norris from the San Diego Padres.
Before diving into this, I will acknowledge the quickest way to catch heat on the internet is to begin making hypothetical and fictitious trades to help your favorite team. Nevertheless a case can be made that his addition would help the team both in 2016 and future seasons.
At first glance acquiring Norris might seem like a strange fit, as Wilson Ramos is in the midst of a career year and Jose Lobaton often acts as Gio Gonzalez’s personal catcher. Not to mention Ryan Zimmerman feels firmly entrenched at first base for the Nationals. On the other hand, Ramos is a free agent at season’s end and Jose Lobaton owns a 61 OPS+ in his three seasons in Washington. No question Lobaton’s a good defensive catcher, but he’s also a major offensive liability. Additionally, Zimmerman is currently hitting .221/284/.401, the worst statistical line of his 12-year career. All of this is to say that there is the potential for ample playing time this season for a backup catcher, pinch hitter and occasional first baseman.
The 27-year-old Norris is currently struggling through a subpar offensive season, hitting .207/.264/.394 with 11 home runs and 32 runs driven in. For his career, Norris owns a .242/.316/.396 batting line and has experience both at catcher and first base. Fangraphs.com rates him as an average to slightly above-average defensive catcher and he has the reputation as a reasonable pitch framer as well. The biggest knock on his defense is his struggles throwing runners out, as his 28% career caught stealing percentage indicates. Ideally he would act as the right-handed side of a platoon at catcher, while receiving occasional at-bats at first base and designated hitter against lefties. Norris is making $2.9 million this season in his first year of arbitration and is under contract through 2018.
From Washington’s perspective, Norris would signify an upgrade offensively (and likely overall) to Lobaton and could be valuable insurance in case of potential injuries to Ramos, Lobaton or Zimmerman. Additionally, Norris could provide the Nationals with a backup plan at catcher in 2017 if the team is unable or unwilling to meet Ramos’s asking price in free agency. And his salary next year in his second time through arbitration should not be prohibitive to re-signing Ramos if the team wishes to agree to terms.
For San Diego, it might make sense for the Padres to explore Norris’s trade value, as the team is struggling through another difficult season and may not contend next season as well. Also, San Diego has young catcher Christian Bethancourt currently on their roster and top prospect Austin Hedges waiting in the wings at Triple-A, which could make them eager to move Norris’s salary and see what type of return he could generate on the open market.
In conclusion, trading for Derek Norris has obvious positives and negatives. Ideally, Norris would hit left-handed to make him the strong-side of a platoon, would be better at throwing out runners and be having a better season offensively. Also, some teams are hesitant to acquire a catcher mid-season, figuring it is difficult to add someone unfamiliar with the pitching staff and not cause potential harm. And these are all legitimate criticisms, as Norris is a solid but flawed player.
Nonetheless, Norris would be a solid acquisition for the Nationals, as he could immediately upgrade the overall roster, while providing the front office with possible leverage in contract negotiations with Ramos this winter. Ramos will be the best catcher available this winter and one of the top overall free agents in a weak class, meaning he could sign a 4-5 year contract worth $15+ million annually. If the Nationals are concerned about his past injuries or giving a long-term deal to a (then) 29-year-old catcher, Norris could be viewed as a reasonable alternative. His value might be depressed at the moment due to his offensive numbers and the state of the Padres’ organization, making him an intriguing buy-low candidate. If the price to acquire him is reasonable and not prohibitive to also strengthening the relief corps, the Nationals should look to trade for Derek Norris.