Entering 2013, the Rays were confident that they had themselves an excellent bullpen once again. The early goings of this year, though, have certainly shaken much of their faith, and now the Rays could be looking at the unfamiliar position of acquiring bullpen help in-season. But it seems unlikely that the Rays will make a trade, and potentially effective relievers don’t exactly grow on trees. Who could the Rays turn to? One possible option could be lefty Jordan Norberto, recently released by the Oakland Athletics.
In 2012 for the A’s, Norberto pitched extremely well, going 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 39 appearances and 52 innings pitched before shoulder inflammation ended his season in August. This season, though, Norberto strained his elbow in the spring and made just three disastrous rehab appearances at Triple-A before Oakland decided to release him. If you thought Fernando Rodney‘s implosion from 2012 to 2013 was spectacular, just look at Norberto! But even after injuries have derailed his career, Norberto still has impressive stuff and is exactly the type of reclamation project the Rays love to target. Norberto seemed like a fit for the Rays from the start, and John Shea and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed that they are indeed interested.
Norberto, who turned 26 in December, attacks hitters with a three-pitch arsenal that is especially impressive in a relief role. Here is a visual representation of his pitches that I created using Pitch F/X from Brooks Baseball.
Looking at the graph and the key, we see that Norberto works primarily with a mid-90’s fastball with some movement towards right-handed hitters, often taking something off to get more movement on it (his “sinker”). Norberto’s fastball doesn’t feature impressive action, but he has done a great job locating it down in the zone and it does have some late bite, making it quite effective. Beyond that, he works with a slider with sharp vertical break and a changeup that does an excellent job mirroring the movement on his fastball only with enough downward movement to miss plenty of bats. With two quality secondary like Norberto has, it’s not surprising that he was effective versus both righties and lefties in 2012, and he was actually better versus righties, holding them to a .573 OPS compared to .679 from lefties. A big reason for the disparity was that he did a better job selling his changeup as a strike, but even more important was the fact that Norberto threw his slider to right-handed hitters but never his changeup to lefties. Maybe adjusting that could make him even better, and considering the Rays may be the team in baseball that has their pitchers throw changeups to same-side hitters the most often in baseball, that sounds like exactly the type of shift they would make in his arsenal.
Norberto could use more work throwing both of his pitches within the zone more often and not simply using them as chase pitches coming off his fastball, but he has the foundation to be a late-inning type of arm who can dominate both righties and lefties–if he can stay healthy. Norberto’s fastball was barely scraping the low-90’s in the spring before he got placed on the disabled list, and if he doesn’t stay on the field and have his quality stuff, his potential is irrelevant. Complicating matters further is that Norberto is still a pre-arbitration player, meaning that whichever teams signs him could have him under team control until following the 2017 season, and if enough teams jockey for Norberto, he might be looking for a major league contract. Nothing will happen until Norberto proves he’s healthy, something that may not happen for another few weeks. Once Norberto shows he’s ready for game action, though, he seems like a player Rays could sign to bolster their bullpen, and we’ll have to see if the fit is right when that happens.
You know the Rays would much rather see their current guys turn it around, but at a certain point they will have to look outside the organization. If Jordan Norberto can stay on the mound, he has late-inning stuff and could give the Rays’ bullpen a lift if it is still struggling. He is precisely the type of upside play the Rays love making to fill out their relief corps, and he may just end up in a Rays uniform by the time summer comes around.