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June 25, 2014

BP Top 50

Daniel Norris vs. Jose Berrios

by Nick J. Faleris, Chris King and Jeff Moore

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Other BP Top 50 Debates

The Rules
Rather than re-printing the BP Prospect Team Midseason Top 50 debates—much of which involves discussion of multiple players at the same time—we thought it would be interesting to call out some of the more interesting pairings among players in consideration for the #BPTop50 and allow an advocate for each to make his case for why that player should be ranked ahead of the other.

In each case, the BP Prospect Team member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for purposes of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players on these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.

Nick Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.

Introducing Norris and Berrios
Daniel Norris and Jose Berrios ended their respective 2013 seasons on very different notes. After struggling with control and consistency issues through the start of his pro career, Norris saw everything click during his 2013 second half with Low-A Lansing, highlighted by a five-start August wherein he retired one out of every three batters faced via strikeout, totaling 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine against just 2.6 walks-per-nine. Some 450 miles away in Low-A Cedar Rapids, Jose Berrios was tiring toward the end of the season and losing effectiveness along the way, with his double-digit strikeouts-per-nine averages through the first three months of the season dropping to 6.0 in July and 7.0 in August, while his walk rate and batting average against each rose.

Norris entered 2014 looking to prove he had indeed turned a corner, and the High-A Florida State League production did just that, with his 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine, 2.4 walks-per-nine, and 1.03 WHIP over 13 starts and 66-plus innings almost identical to his 2013 Midwest League output. The dominant performance earned Norris a mid-season promotion to Double-A New Hampshire, as well as a spot on the 2014 Futures Game U.S. roster.

Berrios also entered the year pressured to show big stuff, with a re-establishment of his prospect value hanging in the balance. Over 14 starts and 83-plus innings Berrios has done just that, matching Norris’s production with 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine, 2.3 walks-per-nine, and a 1.06 WHIP over that span. His stuff has returned to early-2013 form, with an a slight uptick across the board, and evaluators have once again been reminded of the upside in the profile, provided the Puerto Rican product proves durable enough to handle the grind of taking the mound every fifth day over the course of a long pro season. –Nick J. Faleris

The Case for Daniel Norris
It isn’t hard to sell a player like Norris—his makeup, numbers, arm strength and arsenal all speak for themselves. A 6-foot-2 lefty who is an outstanding athlete on and off the mound, Norris throws a fastball that sits easily in the 92-95 range and he can run it up to 97 when need be. If a quirky lefty with a mid- to upper-90s fastball isn’t enough for you, let's talk about his off-speed and breaking stuff. Norris' best secondary pitch is his slider, a sharp and darting pitch that can miss bats while making hitters look foolish in the process.

His curveball is rapidly improving and I believe that was the main factor in his first-half dominance in the Florida State League. Norris began to throw this pitch with more confidence and when playing it off of his fastball, it really keeps hitters off balance. And we’re still not done; Norris has another pitch. Yes, this a 21 year old lefty with four legit pitches in his bag. The changeup has the makings of a plus pitch and sits in the low 80s with good depth and late drop action.

Norris’s fastball command has consistently improved, addressing one of the few knocks on him coming into this season, and start after start Norris has shown an ability to make adjustments. To sum things up, we are talking about the full package: athleticism, makeup, durability and a four-pitch mix that completely overmatched his Florida State League opponents. Did I mention his dominance earned him a mid-season promotion to Double-A…and a spot on the US roster for the All-Star Weekend Futures Game? –Chris King

The Case for Jose Berrios
Even in a one-on-one debate against another prospect, Berrios' case stands for itself. There's little not to like about Berrios. Fastball velocity? Check. I've seen him at 94-95 and we have reports on him touching 98. Dominant breaking ball? Check. Take your pick, in fact. He flashed a potentially plus curve ball that may be his fourth best pitch. His slider is a true wipeout pitch that can miss left or right-handed bats, and I got one report where a left-handed batter swung and missed at a slider that hit him in the knee. You want a changeup? Check there too.

There are days the change piece serves as his best pitch, coming with incredible deception out of a lightning-quick arm. If he were 6-foot-4 instead of 6-foot, we'd be debating him for a top 10 spot on the BP Top 50. The only knock on Berrios is that he lost velocity last season down the stretch, which is a common problem for young pitchers going through their first full season. It's slightly more worrisome in a small pitcher, but he's about two months away from putting those concerns to rest. While he's short, his velocity doesn't require a lot of effort to generate, and the mechanics are smooth. If he can maintain his velocity through the next two months, he's going to shoot up our rankings even further. –Jeff Moore

NF: Let's start with Chris. Daniel Norris didn't crack the Top 101 entering the year, in spite of a solid finish to 2013. What about his 2014 season thus far warrants a jump all the way into the Midseason Top 50, let alone over Berrios (who did rank in the Top 101 at 75th overall)?

CK: I think Norris was overshadowed in the Jays system by the likes of Stroman and Sanchez, so he was sort of lost in the shuffle when the 2013 BP 101 discussions were taking place. So far in 2014 all he’s done is lead the Blue Jays High A squad to the best record on the FSL during the first half while putting up a 1.22 ERA and striking out 10.3 batters per nine. His fastball command is steadily improving, as is his command of his secondaries.

At the same time Berrios, who allegedly has the better game, has posted a higher ERA than Norris at 2.09 with a near identical 10.5 strikeouts-per-nine. Add in the durability concerns with Berrios and the fact Norris is already working Double-A and it becomes clear the left-handed Norris belongs in the BP Top 50 and ahead of Berrios.

NF: Moore, Berrios has seen a slight uptick in stuff this season, but he flashed power stuff in the Midwest League last summer, as well. The problems started to crop up when he began to tire moving into late July and August. How can we jump Berrios into the Midseason Top 50 when he won't even be able to begin to address the biggest question we have about him -- durability -- until later this summer? Isn't this risking a yo-yo effect, where a prospect sees his value rise due to an impressive smaller sample, and then fall back when it's realized he hasn't actually addressed his major issues?

JM: The endurance question is real, but it's the only thing Berrios needs to prove to justify inclusion among the games top prospects. That's why he's being discussed in the back-half of the 50 instead of even higher where his stuff belongs. Let's say that he has the same issues this year, wearing down over the next month and losing velocity. It could mean that his size won't allow him to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher.

While that would be a knock on his value, it doesn't eliminate his ability. Berrios would then profile as a dominant late-inning reliever, a potential lock-down closer with two plus-plus pitches. There are a number of prospects on the list ahead of Berrios who have bigger obstacles to overcome to avoid a relief role (mainly fastball command). Regardless of role, however, Berrios is going to be a valuable pitcher.

NF: Would you still consider Berrios as worthy of Top 50 consideration if he were ticketed for the pen right now?

JM: If Foltynewicz is in the BP Top 50 despite most of us believing that he's going to be a reliever, then Berrios is deserving as well, as he has a much better chance of remaining a starter. That said, if you told me he was definitively a reliever from here on out, I'd have to see how his stuff played. But it's certainly still possible that he's worth a top 50 spot. If he gains the tick of velocity/bite that some players get when they pitch in short stints, then absolutely. If that fastball gains any more velocity, it will be incredible when paired with the slider/changeup. We'd be talking an upper-echelon reliever.

NF: Chris, it's certainly a feather in Norris's cap to now be operating a level above Berrios (now at Double-A). That said, how much, if any, weight should be given to the fact that Norris is a year older than Berrios? Doesn't that largely negate the level advantage Norris has?

CK: I don't see the age being much of a factor considering Norris only threw five innings in the FSL last year. It's not like he was a full level ahead at this time last season.

NF: Got it. So, essentially, we might take age into account when looking at the full body of each profile, but it's not a relevant factor when we are focusing on the progress Norris has made to cut the gap between himself and Berrios?

CK: Age will always play a factor, but in Norris' case and many others like him, each organization will push a player faster or slower depending on many factors, age included. The Blue Jays elected to take it slow with him last year, and this year they are being more aggressive [with his promotion to Double-A] as he has demonstrated he can hold up in a full-season league without breaking down.

And I honestly believe Norris could have pitched in High-A last year, and could have held his own. I think Norris' ability to cut the gap between himself and Berrios is attributable more to his impressive off-field makeup and work habits than it is to some inherent advantage in being a year older. There are plenty of guys who have an “experience” advantage that never realize a jump in ability because they don't put in the work that's needed to take such a big step development wise.

JM: Age relative to level is more important than just age, and Berrios and Norris are similarly impressive for their levels now that Norris has been promoted. It does serve as a notch on Berrios' belt that he was doing what he was doing in the FSL at 20 whereas Norris was 21. It's a small notch, but every little bit counts when we're nit-picking.

This debate is near and dear to my heart, as I valued Norris as a first round talent in a stacked 2011 class based on his projectable profile, and while it took some time and effort to get there he is finally showing some signs that he just might realize that potential. Along similar lines, Berrios was one of the more talented arms I had the pleasure to see in the Midwest League last season, and it’s great to see him get off to such a strong start in 2014 after scuffling some to wrap the 2013 season.

As was the case yesterday, we will keep the convo going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of your own. Are Norris and Berrios each deserving of a jump into the BP Top 50? Will Norris be able to carry over his success to the Eastern League in the second half, and will Berrios show enough stuff to quell fears surrounding his ultimate durability? Who is the better prospect right now?

Check in tomorrow for our next entry in the Midseason Top 50 Debate Series, and of course make sure you’re here when the Midseason Top 50 is released next week.

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Chris King is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here

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