VIERA, Fla. - Derek Norris' locker in the Nationals' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium is close to the main entrance from the dugout, about as far away from the lockers of Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth as he can get. He is wearing No. 66 this spring - the kind of high number that doubles as a trademark for a player who's eventually headed to the minors. And the simple fact that Norris is 22, having never played above Single-A at a position where the Nationals are currently stocked with depth, all but guarantees the team's top catching prospect is just in big league camp for a look.
But Norris sees that process two ways. The Nationals might be taking early stock of him to see how he can handle major league pitching, but Norris will also spend the next few weeks in a clubhouse with Ivan Rodriguez. He'll have access to a staff full of former catchers, including John McLaren, Pat Corrales and Bob Boone. He might call games for veteran pitchers like Livan Hernandez.
"Anybody that has anything to do with catching, I always try to take in information," Norris said. "It's not something where you come out of the womb and you know how to call games. It's something that you're going to develop over time."
There is one thing that is standing between Norris and a quick move through the Nationals' system: his receiving skills and his ability to lead pitchers through games. It's not his offensive skills that would delay his arrival to the majors - Baseball America ranked Norris the 38th-best prospect in baseball last year largely because of a plate approach that minor league operations director Doug Harris has called the most advanced in the Nationals' system. No, the only gap in Norris' game is his defensive skills, and he's intent on closing that as quickly as possible.
"I'm just out to prove that my catching is improving," Norris said. "I'm trying to develop an all-around game and, instead of being an offensive catcher, being a catcher that can hit."
Not that what Norris does at that plate is a bad thing. He was the Nationals' minor league Player of the Year in 2009, after posting a .926 OPS and hitting 23 homers at Single-A Hagerstown. Norris had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left hand after that season, and spent the first two months of 2010 dealing with lingering effects of the operation at Single-A Potomac. But even then, and even with teams pitching around him, Norris managed a .838 OPS, despite hitting just .249, walking 89 times in 94 games. His plate patience helped him through an impressive run in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.070 OPS in 16 games with five homers and 19 RBI, walking 11 times.
He's drawn comparisons to Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann, and has a chance to be a rare offensive talent at the position.
"I've always had the ability to recognize which pitches I can't hit, what pitches to lay off because it's not a pitch I can do anything with," Norris said. "It's not anything I practice. It's just one of those things some people have and some people don't."
The pace of Norris' development, though, will be largely determined by how he improves defensively. Lacking the facilities (and the weather) to do much catching over the winter in his native Kansas, Norris instead worked on his flexibility to help him block more balls in the dirt. He'll get a chance to drill that part of his game this spring, and he's hoping to leave an impression about how far he's come.
"If you were to ask me if I'm thinking about making one of the two (catching) spots on the big-league roster right now, I'm not going to say no to you," Norris said. "Everybody's always got something to prove. Even Pudge, who's got 20 years in the big leagues, he's got something to prove. I feel like if you work hard and do things you need to do, it's going to leave a good impression."