Around the Horn: Norris to lead Nats behind plate

Washington traded for veteran in offseason to replace departed Ramos

Around the Horn: Norris to lead Nats behind plate

With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb.14, and it's time to break down the Nationals' roster.

This is the first part of a multi-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season, beginning with the Nats' catching situation.

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had the most productive offensive backstop in the Majors last season in Wilson Ramos, who paced MLB at that position with 124 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). When Ramos tore his ACL in September it all but paved the way for his departure, and he signed with the Rays this offseason as a free agent.

Replacing that production will be no easy task. Especially considering the player Washington acquired to become its starting catcher posted the lowest wRC+ for any catcher with at least 450 plate appearances.

Yet, the Nationals are expecting Derek Norris to lead their staff at catcher as Ramos' successor. Norris hit .186/.255/.328 last season in San Diego, striking out 30.3 percent of the time and producing just 55 wRC+, a season he described as "awful." The numbers are the worst of his career and well below his career norms. He was an American League All-Star for Oakland in 2014 and a solid player for the Padres in 2015. So the Nationals traded for him this offseason in exchange for Minor League right-hander Pedro Avila because they believe Norris is due for a bounce-back season.

There are reasons for the Nationals' optimism, including a line-drive rate in 2016 that was higher than his career average and a low batting average on balls in play that would indicate that he ran into some bad luck. Norris was worth -0.4 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, last season and is projected to improve to about 1.2 WAR this season, according to Steamer projections. Norris will almost certainly still strike out a lot, but should have better luck when he does put the ball in play and should display the power to hit 10-15 home runs.

"The skill set, when evaluated, the skill set's still there," general manager Mike Rizzo said last month. "We like his approach at the plate. He's got a simple hitting approach that we feel we've dealt with before. We've got a history with him [as the club's fourth-round pick in the 2007 Draft]. We know what makes him tick. We know what motivated him and helped him in the past."

Statcast: Lobaton's key home run

For whatever questions remain with Norris at the plate, he should get most of the playing time, with veteran Jose Lobaton, who agreed to a one-year contract to avoid arbitration, serving as his primary backup. Pedro Severino, the Nationals' No. 11 prospect as rated by MLBPipeline.com, seems destined to start the season at Triple-A Syracuse barring an injury.

Despite the trade for Norris, speculation has continued this offseason that the Nationals will eventually be the team to sign free-agent catcher Matt Wieters. Most of that speculation is tied to the club's history with agent Scott Boras. Wieters' market would likely have to stall during the final weeks of the offseason and his asking price would have to drop significantly for the Nats to shift course to sign him if they saw a bargain emerge.

But they believe in Norris, and they believe a better season from Norris, combined with full-season production from players such as Trea Turner and Adam Eaton as upgrades over Danny Espinosa and Ben Revere, will be enough to make up for what they lost when Ramos left.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.