Tampa Bay Rays : Is Norris the Answer to the Catching Dilemma

Feb 21, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Derek Norris (23) during spring training workouts at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 21, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Derek Norris (23) during spring training workouts at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Did it make sense for the Tampa Bay Rays to add another catcher to the mix and the situation that it created? Here’s a look how things are playing out.

The Tampa Bay Rays never ending search for a front line catcher took a new twist last week when they signed Derek Norris. Is he at least the answer to the Rays immediate needs behind the plate? We won’t know for a while but it is certainly a gamble at best. In the meantime, the entire Rays catching situation is in flux. Let’s take a look at the players and how the overall catching battle is playing out.

The Rays closed out last season with Curt Casali and Luke Maile as their primary catchers. They had average defensive skills and while Casali had some power, they were both below average hitters. All of this translated to solid backups at best. Despite that outlook, it appeared that Casali and Maile were going to battle it out for the starting job with the loser staying on as a backup.

However, early in December, the team signed Wilson Ramos to a two year deal for $12.5 million and incentives. That would have been exciting news accept for the fact that Ramos was still recovering from a serious ACL injury, will begin the year on the DL and won’t be able to catch until late summer at the earliest.

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Next, the team traded for Jesus Sucre and signed Michael McKenry to a minor league contract. Sucre was a defense first catcher in parts of four seasons with Seattle. He has a cannon for an arm but only produce a .209/.246/.276 slash in 239 major league at bats. McKenry is a solid defensive catcher with a fairly decent .238/.318/.407 slash line in 839 at bats with three national league teams.

With Wilson out of action, the other four have been sharing the spring training catching duties with mixed results. Maile is off to a strong start with a .371 batting average in 35 at-bats. Sucre is hitting .286 in 28 at-bats and the pitchers are raving about his game calling skills. Casali has had a rough spring at the plate and is hitting .200 in 30 at-bats. McKenry has not hit well and is been pretty much out of the picture.

The Rays apparently didn’t think any of this was good enough as the signed Derek Norris to a one year $1.2 million contract last week. Norris was available after being released by Washington after they signed Matt Wieters. Like so many players that end up in a Rays’ uniform, Norris has had an up and down career. In 2014/15, he was an offense minded catcher with an .258 batting average, a total of 24 home runs and 117 runs batted in and a trip to the 2014 All Star game. However, 2016 was another story as he hit .186 with 14 home runs and 42 RBIs.

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Norris does not get high marks for his defensive work and was seen as a below average pitch framer. It was rumored that he was not the best teammate in the clubhouse. These are all things that the Rays have valued very highly. To his credit, people around baseball say he has worked hard to improve his defense.

Equally as important, he is joining the Rays five days before the season starts and will have very little time to work with the team’s very talented but young pitching staff. Should he not get on the same page with one or more pitchers, it could be a very rough first month and, as the team witnessed last year, a slow start in the American League East can be fatal.

Aside from Norris’ issues, the move raises questions about what the Rays think of Casali and Maile. It’s possible that Sucre will be the backup catcher and that could leave one or both out of the picture until Ramos’ contract is up at the end of 2018. If they have given up on Casali and/or Maile, they have only Nick Ciuffo, who will probably start the year at A ball, as a solid prospect.

We can only hope that Norris has improved his catching skills and finds the offensive game that made him an all star. If he does, and Ramos is healthy for 2018, the Rays will be solid behind the plate for the next two years.

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That will help them be competitive and give them more time to solve their catcher problem long term. If Norris fails on offense and/or defense, It could damage the entire team and hurt the Rays’ 2017 season.