As the 2016 season opened up, the San Diego Padres had a surplus of quality catchers on their 40-man roster. With the acquisition of Christian Bethancourt from the Atlanta Braves for Casey Kelly, the Padres have three catchers that are ready and able to contribute right now at the major-league level.
Derek Norris, Austin Hedges and Bethancourt provide excellent depth for the Padres at a position that is weak throughout all of Major League Baseball. All three catchers have great ability and could start everyday for quite a few major league teams. Bethancourt is known for his defense, but has really impressed Padres’ management with his power potential. With his arrival, Hedges was demoted to Triple-A to start the season.
Coming into 2016, Norris was easily considered the starter for the Friars. Justifiably so. He provides a nice offensive punch for a Padres team that lacks offensive firepower throughout their whole lineup. He was once regarded as a below-average defender, but has worked extremely hard to improve that. Last year he threw out runners at a 34 percent rate (league average is 28 percent) which was a dramatic improvement over his last year in Oakland where he was at 17 percent. In reality, Norris still has framing issues and there are questions about his pitch-calling, but his defense can no longer be considered a liability to a major league team.
Young Austin Hedges was once considered the prized jewel in the Padres farm system. The 23-year-old has the defensive abilities to be a perennial Gold Glove winner but his bat has many questions. He drives the ball effectively, but lacks plate discipline and pitch recognition. Last season in Triple-A, Hedges seemed to have finally found himself offensively. He hit .324 with two homers and 15 RBI in 79 plate appearances and was called up by the Padres in May. Last Monday night, Hedges went three-for-four in the minors and hit his second home run of the season. He is clearly figuring it out and with that the clock is ticking on a potential trade.
Between Hedges and Norris, the highest trade value still remains with Derek Norris. He has an All-Star season (2014) under his belt and is widely regarded as a great clubhouse guy. Norris is a fiery competitor and tough as nails — exactly what you want to see from your starting catcher. So if Norris is so great, why in the world would the Padres consider dealing him? That’s a great question. Simply put, Hedges might very well be better. Defensively Hedges is already more advanced than Norris will ever be. Hedges is just blessed with defensive skills you dream of for a catcher. His arm and pitch framing are phenomenal and he should get better defensively with even more experience learning major league hitters tendencies.
It’s the bat though. There will always be questions about the bat. In all reality Hedges will probably never be a .300 type hitter. He does have some pop in his bat though and being a power hitting defensive catcher will easily earn him years of major league service time. You can see the growth in his bat and with that a natural excitement builds within the Padres organization. Hedges looks to be the future and the future seems to be rapidly approaching. Derek Norris and his offensive struggles could rapidly expedite the process of a trade.
Trading Derek Norris would get immediate backlash from the fan base. He is beloved among the majority of the fans and they will view any dealing of him as a “fire sale.” That will be a public relations nightmare as the Padres still have yet to pronounce the team in a sort of rebuilding process. Something that they are obviously in (to some extent). Norris being dealt wouldn’t be a financially-based decision, however. He is scheduled to make $2.95 million this season and is not due for free agency until after the 2018 season. He is under team control and at a decent price. If he were moved, it would be a matter of the team moving their depth to address other issues within the organization. That is smart. You trade from your strength in order to build up what you do not have.
Right now the Padres need arms at the upper minor league level. They have Jeremy Guthrie in Triple-A right now filling a rotation spot. He provides the team with some veteran depth, but is not an option long-term in any capacity. With the trades of Matt Wisler, Joe Ross, Zach Eflin and Joe Wieland last offseason, the Padres depleted most of their higher ranked starting pitching prospects. The team will get some relief in that area during the MLB draft in which they have six of the first 85 selections. That will help, but the team will likely be eyeing higher level pitching prospects in future potential trades.
Derek Norris traded for some decent high level pitchers might very well be in the clubs future. The Texas Rangers come to mid initially as they have an obvious need at catcher now and in the long run. Robinson Chirinos has a broken right forearm and quite frankly wasn’t a great option for the team when he was healthy. The Rangers have playoff aspirations, so a trade for catching depth is definitely in their future. I don’t care what you read in the newspapers. The Padres and Rangers match up well and there have been tons of speculation about the two teams dealing. Nothing has come to a head and at this point it is all just speculation.
The slump that Norris is going through currently could facilitate a trade soon. The Padres are probably anxious to get Hedges behind the plate at the major league level and at the same time there has to be some internal discussions about Norris and his decreased value with the bat. If you look at his 2014 numbers in Oakland compared to last year in San Diego you will see some alarming things. His on-base percentage dropped from .361 (2014) to .305 (2015). That was a result of fewer walks and a huge increase in his strikeout total (86 strikeouts in 2014 and 131 in 2015). In Norris’ defense he was overworked by the Padres early in the year and clearly wore down physically in the second half of the year.
The slow start Norris is currently going through is the product of him being too pull-happy. He looks constantly out on his front foot and seems eager to drive the ball more than making contact. He will make the adjustments and his offensive numbers will rise. Baseball is all about the law of averages. The fact he is cold now only dictates he will catch fire relatively soon. Derek Norris is too good a hitter not to make the proper adjustments. Expect a slumping Norris to get the bat going and with that the trade winds will start blowing heavily again. Especially if the Padres fail to get out of the hole they dug themselves in to start the 2016 season.