WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - From the day they signed Matt Wieters, Derek Norris knew his time with the Nationals would be short-lived. The end finally came this morning, when the club granted the 28-year-old catcher his unconditional release.
Norris, who had been acquired from the Padres in early December presumably to be the Nationals’ starting catcher, now becomes a free agent hoping to sign with another club before opening day.
“With two weeks left in spring training, I feel like I’ve done everything I can to prepare for a season,” Norris said. “And hopefully here in a couple days, I’ll be with a team that I’ve got a good shot of breaking camp with and go out and have a good year.”
There was logic behind the timing of the move. By releasing Norris today, the Nationals are responsible only for 30 days’ termination pay of his $4.2 million salary. That equates to roughly $688,000. Had they waited to release him later this month, the Nats would have been responsible for 45 days’ worth of his salary (roughly $1.03 million).
The Nationals did try to find a trade partner for Norris in the three weeks since they signed Wieters to a $10.5 million deal, sources familiar with the situation said. They also placed him on waivers over the weekend, giving other clubs the opportunity to claim him (but be forced to pick up his entire salary).
All along, though, it was going to be tough to find a willing partner when the entire baseball world knew the situation, knew if they waited it out they could sign Norris for any amount once the Nationals inevitably released him.
Despite the awkward situation he found himself in throughout this process, Norris impressed club officials and teammates with his attitude and work ethic. He hit .353 (6-for-17) with two homers and three RBIs in nine Grapefruit League games.
“He handled it like a professional, handled it like a man,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He still was busting his butt playing, trying to help pitchers. I didn’t know him before he got here, but he’d be an asset to any team. He would’ve been an asset to us as well. It just didn’t work out. It’s a numbers game. And sometimes business decisions supersede other decisions. It’s a shame the way things have gone, but that’s how it is.”
General manager Mike Rizzo, who traded minor league right-hander Pedro Avila to the Padres for Norris, declined to comment through a club spokesman.
Norris said he expects several teams to have interest in him. Whether one of those teams can offer him the kind of playing time he believes he has earned remains to be seen.
“Obviously you’re at a premium position where there’s not enough of them,” he said. “So you’re always going to find somewhere. Where it gets a little different for me is trying to find somewhere with the best interests for myself and getting with a team that I know I can have, not necessarily an everyday gig, but a chance to determine my own destiny. Where if I’m doing well, my playing time goes up. And if I’m not, then we’ll see what happens. So I’m just trying to find a place where I’m given an equal opportunity to go out there and kind of put myself back on the map.”
A 2007 draft pick of the Nationals, Norris was part of the package of players Rizzo traded to the Athletics in December 2011 for left-hander Gio González. He went on to become an All-Star with Oakland in 2014 before getting traded to San Diego, where he struggled last season, batting .186 in 125 games.
The notion of returning to his roots and resurrecting his career with the Nationals was appealing, but now Norris will have to attempt to do that elsewhere, though he had plenty of time to come to grips with it.
“I think I got through that a few weeks ago,” he said. “It’s a bummer. I’m very familiar with a lot of the coaching staff and a lot of the guys in here. So for sure it’s a bummer. But it’s part of it. I enjoyed it while it lasted. And even though it was a short time, I still got an opportunity to learn some things from the guys here and to keep me carrying on forward.”