Future full of possibilites for Norris
Prospect could end up in Astros' bullpen or as Minors starter
JUPITER, Fla. -- Technically, Bud Norris, the Astros' top pitching prospect, is in the running for a bullpen job. Realistically, however, the 24-year-old right-hander is trying out for a spot in a bullpen where there are no jobs available, making it much more likely that he'll start the season at Triple-A.
Norris is one of the few prospects who has done nothing to play himself off the team, which is why he is still with the big league club in the final stages of Spring Training. He's done everything expected of him since he arrived to Florida in mid-February, and other than a couple of minor stumbles here and there, he's performed well in most of his eight outings entering the Astros' game with the Cardinals on Wednesday.
But looking down the road, what exactly is Norris? A future starter? Reliever? Closer?
Consider all of that a definitive TBA, as is his April destination.
"There's three outcomes," Norris surmised. "Make the [Astros] in the bullpen, make [Triple-A] Round Rock in the bullpen or make Round Rock as a starter. I just kind of play until they say, 'This is what we want you to do.' You just go with it."
The Astros' pitching depth is thin, especially in the area of starting, so logic may dictate that Norris' future is in the rotation. But Norris also could fit into that Chad Qualls-Brad Lidge mold, in which he starts in the Minor Leagues and eventually develops into a hard-throwing back-end type in the 'pen.
The club's needs will obviously be a factor, but so will Norris' development. He's a fastball-slider pitcher who could eventually be a fastball-slider-changeup pitcher, and it's that last pitch that could ultimately define him.
The Astros need to find out what they have in Norris, and if he works out of the bullpen at Round Rock, he'll have less time and fewer opportunities to develop his pitches.
If he starts, however, the picture will likely become clearer, faster. The club's philosophy is simple: You can always scale back.
"You can always flip them to a reliever, and the conversion is usually pretty easy," pitching coach Dewey Robinson said. "Then, they have two or three pretty solid pitches. So if [Norris] goes back to the Minor Leagues, it would be my suggestion that he start, so he works on his second and his third pitch, specifically his slider and his changeup. Then, if he goes to the big leagues, whether it's as a starter or reliever, he's more than a one-plus pitcher. He's got two-plus, or three-plus pitches."
Norris has had three outings this year that lasted two innings, but even then, his pitch count rarely exceeded 30. Considering the Astros have yet to option him out and it's getting late -- really late -- in the spring season, it would seem unlikely he could be ready to throw five or six innings right away for Round Rock.
A quick glance at the schedule suggests otherwise. The Triple-A season starts April 9, and if Norris was slotted in toward the back of the rotation, he'd probably have more than enough time to stretch himself out for his first start of the regular season. If he's only ready for four innings that initial time out, so be it.
As Robinson pointed out, Norris has been in camp for nearly six weeks and while the innings haven't piled up, his arm is in fine shape and he should be ready for whatever assignment he's handed.
For his part, Norris trusts the organization to do what's best for it, and for him.
"I know they have my best interests," Norris said. "If they want to put me back in the rotation, they'd find ways to get me my innings and whatnot. They've always been good with my health in particular. I've been banged up both years in low A and Double-A and they've always found ways to take care of me. I'm not worried about that. Whatever role they need me to fill, I'll do the best I can to fill that role."
If Norris headed to camp this year intending to impress the decision-makers, he can consider that a mission accomplished.
"Bud's moved in a straight line from the Arizona Fall League experience to here," general manager Ed Wade said. "I still believe he's got a future as a big league starter, but now we're evaluating him as someone who could win a spot in the bullpen, and he hasn't done anything to eliminate himself."
Robinson expressed a similar sentiment concerning Norris.
"He's done his part," Robinson said. "He's had a good camp. There's been a couple of blips on the radar, but for the most part, I've been very impressed with his arm. There's a plus fastball there and a real good slider. He's just got to get the experience of pitching at [the Major League] level. It's a big jump."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.