With the July 31 trade deadline looming, the Orioles had a mess of a starting rotation that saw the likes of Jason Hammel and Zach Britton starting games in July. If they wanted to get a top-of-the-market rental, they would have to pay more of a cost in prospects than they should have. Farther down in the market was Houston Astros starter Bud Norris, who was, if nothing else, averaging six innings per start while having an ERA in the high 3s.
To the Orioles, this was valuable enough to warrant a trade. They acquired Norris from the Astros in exchange for a couple of prospects with local ties: outfielder L.J. Hoes and Low-A pitcher Josh Hader, a 19th-round pick in 2012 who showed promise for Delmarva in his first full season. The Orioles also sent their competitive balance pick, currently scheduled at #33 in the draft, to Houston.
As fate would have it, the trade was consummated while Houston was in Baltimore for a series at Camden Yards. Norris and Hoes switched clubhouses, with Norris making his first Orioles start against his old team.
A selling point for Norris compared to other players that were on the market is that he would have two years of service time remaining beyond the 2013 season. Perhaps the idea was that Norris could stabilize a spot in the rotation for the next two seasons. It was a nice idea. How close it is tethered to reality is not so certain.
Beneath the surface of a league-average starter - Norris had a 3.93 ERA in 126 innings, a 103 ERA+, before the trade - were concerning numbers. While Norris pitched to a 2.92 ERA in Minute Maid Park, his ERA elsewhere at the time of the trade was over 5.
Was he a fly ball pitcher who would suffer an unpleasant adjustment coming to pitch his home games at Camden Yards? In five starts in Baltimore after the trade, he gave up 20 earned runs in 24.2 innings, a 7.30 ERA. Even worse was his WHIP: 1.986. Norris gave up five home runs in that time. His home run per fly ball percentage (HR/FB) jumped from 6.9% with Houston to 12% with the O's. This does not have the whiff of an accident of small sample size.
On the season, Norris allowed 17 home runs. Exactly one of these home runs was hit by a right-handed batter. The other 16 were all launched by lefties. The whole problem with Norris lies in his platoon splits. Against righties, he does better than most, allowing a .241/.307/.322 this season. When facing lefties, those numbers jumped to a .315/.381/.509. That is a jump of 260 points of OPS when going from righties to lefties. As a right-handed pitcher, you expect Norris to do better against righties, but that split is heavily pronounced.
More concerning for the Orioles, Norris allowed a .693 OPS the first time through the batting order, which jumped to a .797 the second time through, and stayed at a high .809 the third time through the order.
A bright spot for Norris is that after the trade he increased his strikeout rate, notching 57 strikeouts in the 50.2 innings he threw for the O's. Whether that is sustainable is another question, and he had a 4.80 ERA for the O's despite that increase in strikeouts, as well.
Given his struggles against left-handed batters and when facing hitters multiple times per game, could the future for Norris lie in the bullpen? At a glance, Norris looks like a pitcher who might belong on the Tommy Hunter track. Hunter is another right-handed pitcher who was simply not cut out to be a starter. Going to the bullpen has allowed Hunter to increase his velocity and the number of strikeouts he can get.
While Hunter is still prone to the homer, he pitched to a 0.985 WHIP in 86.1 innings as the Orioles' eighth-inning guy. That's in spite of an .857 OPS by lefties against him. Hunter held right-handed batters to a stunning .344 OPS. All of the 11 home runs that Hunter allowed were against lefties.
As a result of all of this, Norris was not the solid presence envisioned at the time of the trade.
If Norris can find a way to improve against lefties, then he may be an answer in the starting rotation for the next two years. If not, then having another Hunter on their hands is the best that the O's can probably hope for, and if that is the case, the sooner they realize it, the better off they will be.
One key difference between Norris and Hunter will be salary. Hunter made $1.82 million in his first year of arbitration, while Norris made $3 million. Norris will be compared to other starters when swapping numbers, and so he will likely be paid as a second-year arbitration-eligible starter. In that sense, it would seem to be a greater disappointment were Norris converted to a reliever, especially considering the Orioles gave up a couple of local prospects and a high draft pick to acquire him to bolster the rotation.
Barring an injury or surprise decision, Norris figures to open the 2014 season in the Orioles rotation. O's fans will be hoping that, at age 29, he is able to take a step forward against lefties that he has not done in his career to date.