Derek Norris has been around the block. The Nationals drafted the catcher as an 18-year-old in the 2007 draft. He spent five years developing in their system, then headed to the Athletics in the 2011 offseason's Gio Gonzalez trade. His three seasons in Oakland went fairly well, such that the Padres dealt for him in the 2014 offseason. With two up-and-down seasons in San Diego under his belt, he's now had to pack his suitcase again, as the Nationals have reacquired the now-27-year-old backstop.
Need to catch your breath? Imagine how he feels.
Unlike some of the recent trades we’ve seen, this deal looks like a fairly straightforward one-for-one: The contender gets a big-leaguer, while the rebuilder gets a farmhand. The Nationals want to win in 2017, so they imported a veteran catcher; the Padres want to win down the road and bottom out in 2017, so they snagged Pedro Avila, a young pitching prospect, in return.
Of course, Washington had one of the better catchers in baseball this season, with Wilson Ramos earning 3.5 fWAR over 523 plate appearances. The issues with Ramos for next year are twofold:
- He tore his ACL in September
- He’s a free agent
So Ramos might not return until mid-2017, and with Norris coming to D.C., he definitely won’t return to the Nationals. After Ramos helped the team get to the playoffs in 2016, he’ll ply his trade elsewhere going forward.
On the surface, Norris represents a significant downgrade from Ramos. He cost the Padres 0.4 fWAR this year, primarily because of his offense: Among players with 450 or more plate appearances, he had the lowest wRC+ at 55. Compared to Ramos — whose 124 wRC+ led qualified catchers — that’s pretty unimpressive. Why would the Nationals, who want to defend their NL East crown, swap out one of their best position players for a scrub?
For one thing, Ramos’s 2016 production came out of nowhere. Prior to this year, he’d posted a career wRC+ of 93 and racked up a spectacularly unexceptional 6.9 fWAR. In fact, Norris was actually a better player than him before 2016 — he compiled even more fWAR (7.6) even though he received nearly 250 fewer plate appearances. Thus, while the two catchers went in different directions this year, Steamer foresees some regression toward the mean for both of them:
If Norris’s bat can bounce back from its horrendous 2016 — in which, I should note, he put up a measly .238 BABIP despite having the same hard contact rate as Ryan Braun — he’ll become a dependable catcher again, and the Nationals won’t miss Ramos in the slightest.
Plus, hitting isn’t everything, especially for catchers. Defensively, Norris has become one of the best backstops in the majors: By Baseball Prospectus’s calculation, he ranked in the top 10 in framing runs both this year (9.2 FRAA) and last (12.1 FRAA). Ramos has decent receiving skills — over those two years, he earned 7.8 FRAA — but he just can’t steal as many strikes as Norris. Since fWAR doesn’t take framing into account, it underrates Norris’s value; he might be worth even more to the Nationals.
Norris has anything but a certain future; he’ll be 28 on Opening Day, and with his offensive volatility, the Nationals don’t know for sure if he’ll improve from here. Nevertheless, the potential he possesses, along with the framing and team control — he won’t hit free agency for three more years — could make him a shrewd acquisition for Mike Rizzo.
On the other side of this deal, the Padres will part ways with another of the players A.J. Preller brought in during the 2014 offseason. Matt Kemp, Justin and B.J. Upton, Will Middlebrooks, Craig Kimbrel, and James Shields have all gone to greener pastures; now, only Wil Myers remains. Since the aggressive, flags fly forever-driven spending spree didn’t pay off, A.J. Preller and co. decided to try an Astros-style fire sale.
The payoff in this trade looks pretty interesting from San Diego’s perspective. Avila, who turns 20 in January, just wrapped up his first full season at the Class A level. With the Hagerstown Suns, he worked his way to a 3.48 ERA and 3.57 DRA across 93.0 innings. His 23.3 percent strikeout rate and 46 percent ground ball rate offset some problems with control — he walked 9.6 percent of opposing batters — and made him a solid starting pitcher.
Results at the lower levels of the minors don’t always transfer, though. How does Avila’s stuff look? According to former BP prospect analyst Chris Crawford, pretty solid:
Pedro Avila has durability concerns because of his size, but touches the mid 90s with his fastball, and the curveball flashes plus.— Christopher Crawford (@Crawford_MILB) December 2, 2016
His command, as Crawford noted in a follow-up tweet, might give Avila some problems down the line — if he’s close to a double-digit walk rate in Single-A ball, he’ll probably give out a lot of free passes at the higher levels. Still, he has plenty of time to grow, and an employer that can afford to be patient with him. When the Padres make the leap to contending again, maybe Avila will give them an extra arm out of the bullpen, or maybe they’ll be able to flip him for a reliable major-league contributor, as the Nationals have done.
The Padres most likely won’t make the playoffs in 2017, and they’re probably fine with that — as evidenced by the fact that they cut ties with many of their veteran players. The Nationals have a much better shot at making the playoffs in 2017, and they felt a peripatetic catcher with an inconsistent bat and sterling glove could help them with that. For each team, the Norris trade makes sense: One receives a short-term fix, the other a long-term wild card.