Daniel Norris has just completed his second consecutive season of very good pitching performance. That should give him a nice raise in the off season and cement his place on the roster as a part of the Tigers’ future going forward, right? Not really.
The 27-year-old southpaw made 29 starts while pitching to an ERA of 4.49 in 144 innings in 2019 after coming off successive seasons where he was limited by injuries. Just staying healthy was a big step forward for the former first round draft pick. The black mark on his record was a home run ratio of 1.56, along with a declining K rate of 7.79 batters per nine innings.
Norris began the 2020 season on the injured list after coming down with the coronavirus, putting his season in jeopardy. He returned to find the rotation spots all taken — including some spots by lesser pitchers — so it didn’t take much to convince the Tigers to move him to the bullpen. After making one start where he faced just eleven batters, giving up two runs on four hits and a pair of walks in 1 2⁄3 innings, he would spend the remainder of the season pitching out of the bullpen, with much success in that role.
In his career, which is now more than five seasons, Norris has been successful in the first time through the batting order with an ERA of 2.65, holding opponents to a .239 average and a ratio of 0.95 HR/9. After that, it’s all downhill. His ERA jumps to 5.64 the second time through the order and 6.91 on the third time through, and the hits just keep coming.
So it stands to reason that Norris is best used either out of the bullpen in a multiple inning relief role, or as an opener, if his club is so inclined to deploy such a tactic.
Sure enough, Norris held batters to a 2.77 ERA and an average of .219 in 13 appearances totaling 26 innings of relief. He boosted his strikeout ratio to 9.11 K/9, lowered his HR/9 to 0.65 — which stands out on this pitching staff, and posted a career best 2.28 BB/9, and just 1.73 BB/9 in a relief role.
Norris wound up ranked among the Tigers’ top three relievers in K/9 and BB/9, and led the team’s bullpen in HR/9 and WHIP (1.00). He may have found his niche.
With a cast of young studs that includes Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo potentially staking claims to spots in the Tigers’ rotation, all earning near minimum salary for the next few seasons, rotation spots figure to be hard to claim in the near term.
As Norris heads to the off season with his third and final season of arbitration eligibility, he does so as a relief pitcher for the first time in his career. He is the only Tiger currently on the roster who is scheduled for free agency after the 2021 season.
In his second season of arbitration, Norris settled for a $2,925,000 salary, which is just a bit more than teammate Michael Fulmer. That give him the third highest salary on the team behind Miguel Cabrera and Matthew Boyd, before any free agents are signed or other players acquired.
Boyd and Fulmer, who were acquired in mid season trades along with Norris in July of 2015, each have a fourth season of arbitration eligibility remaining before they can become free agents. Both are coming off subpar seasons, and both have shown the promise of being potential front of the rotation pitchers at one point not so long ago. But they also both head into the arbitration season as starting pitchers, who are typically paid more than all but the best relief pitchers.
Norris stands to get a raise in his final season of arbitration, projected to $3-3.5 million for the 2021 season, and he would be worth that with a repeat performance. The Tigers could save that money by non-tendering him, but that would be just plain cheap. That is a reasonable sum for a reliever who ranked 14th in the league among those with at least 20 innings pitched in 2020. Small sample, yes, but it’s all we’ve got — and frankly, the Tigers have got little else if they’re going to start letting pitchers go because they’ll make a few dollars more.
This could change with signing of free agents on one year contracts, but Norris is the first of the current roster to graduate. Whether the Tigers hold onto some of these players is to be determined. They have not signed a player to an extension into free agent seasons since Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera were extended.
Having tried and failed to carve himself a role in the Tigers’ rotation going forward, Norris can be a valuable asset out of the bullpen if he can remain healthy and put up the kind of numbers over a full season that he posted in the crazy, virus-shortened season of 2020.
Effective pitchers are a hot commodity every season around the trade deadline, and the Tigers have few chips to bargain with. If he stays healthy and pitches like he did in a shortened 2020 season, the Tigers may decide to trade Norris, as they’ve done with the few decent players nearing free agency in recent seasons. Or they could extend him and finally begin to put a down payment on their future.