This is the second article in the “Something Rather Nothing” series, and the first article, focusing on Marcus Greene Jr., can be read here.
December 12th, 2016: Padres trade C Derek Norris to the Nationals for P Pedro Avila
In the Winter of 2014, AJ Preller was making waves across the baseball landscape with numerous big ticket trades and free agent signings. Although not of the same caliber as the trade that brought Matt Kemp to the Padres, his trade for Derek Norris was a significant move. The 25 year old catcher was coming off an All Star season with the the A’s, carried by his strong offensive numbers. He slashed .270/.361/.403 in 2014, showing excellent on base skills while playing a position where any offensive production is a bonus.
In his first year with the Padres, Norris saw his offensive numbers drop almost across the board. He slashed a disappointing .250/.305/.404, but his defense improved, making him a respectable 2.5 WAR player in 2015. Alarmingly though, his walk rate precipitously dropped from 12.2% in 2014 to just 6.3% in 2015 while his strikeout rate rose from 19.5% to 23.5%. At 26, the year could be seen as a disappointment for Norris but not a total failure. It was reasonable to assume that his increased catching workload may have negatively impacted his offensive numbers and that 2016 could be a bounce back year for Norris.
Unfortunately, 2016 arrived and Derek Norris had a disastrous, apocalyptically bad season. At just 27, an age at which many players put up prime numbers, he saw his strikeout rate rise to 30.3% as his OPS fell to a meager .583 (it is shocking to note that in 2014 with the A’s, Norris’ OPS was .763, meaning in just two years he saw it drop by 180. It is difficult to overstate how awful Norris was in 2016). His decline was a stunning and difficult thing for Padres fans to watch.
His value had sunk so low that the Padres were unable to find suitors for him at the 2016 trade deadline and were forced to hope that his numbers improved over the second half of the season to raise his value. Unfortunately, Norris continued to flounder further in the 2nd half, posting a putrid .432 OPS after the All Star break.
By Winter of 2016, the Padres and AJ Preller had witnessed the complete evaporation of Derek Norris’ value. Two straight years of decline and an abysmal season in which he was one of the least productive players in baseball at the plate, left AJ Preller in a precarious situation. Austin Hedges was waiting in the wings and in need of everyday MLB starts, so AJ had to hope that a team would take a flier on Norris, still just 27, at a point when his value had never been lower. Thankfully for Padres fans, AJ Preller found a suitor in the Washington Nationals, as he sent Derek Norris to D.C. in exchange for a 19 year old pitcher named Pedro Avila.
Pedro Avila was signed as a teenager out of Venezuela in 2014 by the Nationals. At 5’11” and 170lbs, he’s never had a prototypical and projectable pitcher’s build, but he does have a lively fastball in the mid-90’s, a curveball with potential, and a developing changeup.
In 2015, he made his professional debut at age 18 in the Dominican Summer League and put up very strong numbers. He posted a 2.26 ERA while striking out 87 batters in 57.2 innings (these impressive strikeout numbers will become a trend). The Nationals were impressed enough with Avila to send him stateside to finish 2015 with one relief appearance in the Gulf Coast League.
Encouraged by his sterling numbers, the Nationals placed Avile in the full season low-A South Atlantic League for the 2016 season. Yet, his age 19 season saw him consistently battling command issues, as he walked an alarming 9.6% of batters. His strikeout numbers also saw a more than 10% dip year over year, from 26.7% in 2015 to 13.7% in 2016. Although this certainly wasn’t a step forward for Avila, he was still young for his league.
Due to his drooping production, Avila’s stock dropped and his difficult 2016 most likely account for why the Nationals were willing to deal him for Norris. Still, at the time of the deal, MLB.com rated Avila as the Nationals’ 23rd best prospect, and the Padres saw him as a young pitcher who had flashed early success and great strikeout numbers.
In 2017, the Padres placed Avila at High A in Lake Elsinore and the hitter friendly California League. Avila’s strikeout rate rebounded to 26.9%, but his walk rate stayed high at 9.1%. And although his numbers weren’t disastrous, especially accounting for the pitching environment, after 43.1 winnings with an ERA of 4.98, the Padres sent Avila down to Low A Fort Wayne.
With the TinCaps, Avila began with a series of inconsistent starts, which saw him striking out plenty of batters, but also giving up plenty of hits and runs. In his first four appearances in the Midwest league, he gave up 17 earned runs on 25 hits over 20.2 innings, but he also struck out 24 batters while walking only 5. Since then, though, Avila has been nothing short of dazzling, posting five consecutive strong starts. Over that time, Avila has thrown 32.2 innings while posting a 1.10 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. More promising still, his strikeout rate is at 31.3% while his walk rate has dropped to 3.1%.
For optimistic fans, Pedro Avila is a young pitcher who is finally figuring things out stateside and has plenty of potential to stick as a starter. He’s posted impressive strikeout numbers while limiting walks and has displayed improving command. Furthermore, he’s still young at 20 and seems due for a promotion back to Lake Elsinore, and with each consecutive strong start, it’s becoming easier and easier to see Avila’s success as a sign of things to come rather than an aberration. Also, his peripherals bode well for him moving forward and show middle of the rotation promise.
Less rosy-eyed fans will point out that he’s still small in stature, which raises injury concerns and offers little projection moving forward. They’d argue that his body of work reveals command issues that a small pitcher simply can’t afford to have and that his recent success is limited to a small sample and in a level that he’s had to repeat. Finally, they’d argue that his present numbers are overshadowed by his more middling past year and a half.
Pragmatic fans see Avila’s recent improvement as a sign that he has made adjustments necessary to improve his command and that his peripherals give him a chance to continue rising as a starter. But, if Avila were to make it as a starter, it would be against the odds (this fantastic Fangraphs article by Elliot Evans examines short pitchers in detail and is well worth the read.) His most likely destination is the bullpen, where his strikeout numbers might play even better, and his durability would be less of a concern.
No matter your stance, getting anything of value for Derek Norris can be seen as a win for AJ Preller, especially in retrospect. Norris was released by the Nationals before ever playing a game with them, and after signing on with the Rays, was released in June of this year. At this point, he’s effectively out of baseball.
Although it’s fair for Preller to garner criticism for trading for Derek Norris in the first place, this isn’t the only time we have seen him salvage value from a player almost entirely bereft of it, as he has continuously shown a willingness to make 1 for 1 trades which swap declining MLB talent for high risk youngsters in the lower minor leagues. He and his scouts deserve credit for the players they’ve mined from these moves.
It’s yet to be seen what Pedro Avila will become, but his stuff misses bats, and where there is stuff, there is hope. So here’s to wishing that his short term success transitions to the long term and that the 5’11” Venezuelan can buck trends to become a starter for the Padres.