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What does the future hold for struggling prospect Derek Norris?

In a recent Baseball Prospectus article titled, “Future Shock: Prospects Who Have Stalled,” Kevin Goldstein writes about Nationals catching prospect Derek Norris’s difficult season:

“Although recovery from a major wrist injury is a mitigating factor, that alone can’t wipe away Norris’ strange line of .240/.415/.397 for High-A Potomac. An offense-first catcher, Norris has remained an absolute walk machine, but the wrist issue has made him almost too passive. His ability to hit for average and power has slipped away. Because of his defensive shortcomings, he can’t afford to be a one-trick pony at the plate, and an expected 2011 assignment to Double-A could be a make-or-break season for Norris, at least in terms of his reputation as one of the better catching prospects in baseball.”

Unfortunately, this excerpt only paints half the picture for the talented 21-year-old.

Norris entered 2010 as the #38 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. The year before the 20-year-old cruised through Single-A Hagerstown batting .286 with 23 homers and 30 doubles in 126 games, earning Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year honors. He showed outstanding patience, getting on-base at .413 for the season, showing scouts that he had the potential to be a serious power/walk threat at the big league level in a few years. Traditionally for young players raw power comes first, and patience comes later, but it seemed that for Norris, he was advanced beyond his years as a true outcome potential star at a premium position.

Norris ended his season in 2009 with surgery to repair a fractured bone in his hand. Despite entering 2010 with high expectations, he was sidelined from the beginning with nerve irritation from his fall surgery, and didn’t return to the field until the middle of May. Just 11 days later Norris suffered a bean-ball to the head that hospitalized the young catcher. As you’ve read above, it was downhill from there once he got on the field.

To make things worse, the Nationals used their second biggest bargaining chip at the trade deadline to acquire a near major-league ready catching prospect in catcher Wilson Ramos. While Ramos has struggled in 2010, many believe he will be the Nats catcher of the future, and possibly a starter in 2011.

This means that on top of the injuries, the pitch to the head, and the sudden power-zap, Norris will now likely have to deal with a change of position. Never the defensive wizard behind the plate, he will likely now switch to either first base or corner outfield in a move that will prove more taxing than normal with his struggles at the plate. In the long run though this could be a blessing in disguise for the 21-year-old. Catching is a position that slows many prospects because of the both physical and mental demands it requires. Perhaps with a clean slate at an easier position, Norris can return to the promising hitter he was in 2009, and forget about the terror that has been 2010.

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