In my very limited work experience in Major League Baseball, there has been one common thread on the field...Greg Norton (Rays '07; Braves '08). I remember Norton from when I first started watching the MLB in the late 1990's as being a young White Sox player who had some potential as a corner infielder who was taken high in the draft. Maybe even the basic splits of .280/25/80. Unfortunately that never really worked out for Norton and in 2004 when he was with the Tigers and hit beneath the "Mendoza line" on one of the leagues worst teams and played 2005 in AAA Charlotte (White Sox), I thought he was finished. Yet, in 2006, Norton received second life and put together a pretty decent season with the Tampa Bay Rays. I attribute that turnaround to a far improved pitch selection. He set career highs in every single offensive major offensive category that season, with the greatest surprise being an improved ability to get on base. It is not often when thirty something players re-invent themselves at the plate to bump their OBP nearly 40 points over their career average and that is very impressive for Norton. Even with his improved offensive tools, he really has struggled on defense at just about every position except first-base (.919 career Fielding % at Third-Base) and Joe Maddon decided to start playing him in the outfield to spell Delmon Young or Carl Crawford last season...ugly. Let's think about the deficiencies of corner outfielders, they are slower and do not have as good of an arm as centerfielders. This enthusiastically describes Norton, however his range and arm are so bad in the outfield these days that today I saw him miss catches on two balls that I estimate would have been made by an average corner outfielder and have seen with great repetition, throws on one hop to the cutoff man. Oh and he fell down catching a line drive, but hey...he laughed it off (so did I while Braves fans cheered - Ignorance is bliss I suppose).
All of that bashing aside, I may just be able to see what has made John Schuerholz (err...Frank Wren now) and Bobby Cox so successful over the years. Last season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Norton hung around all season and "boasted" numbers of .243/4/23 (but with a .358 OBP). Those are figures that would set Norton up to be a pretty respectable National League bench guy -- ALA, the perfect guy to bring in to pinch hit for the pitcher in the 6th or 7th. He knows how to work a walk and his numbers show that again this year. Despite a .182 average with the Braves at the end of the June 3rd game, Norton has a .345 on-base percentage. That is ideal for a bat off the bench in the National League, especially since his batting average should come back up again.
Perhaps it was because I was sitting down the third-base line and watching Norton closely on defense the past two games that I became appalled beyond belief that the Braves were running this guy out there, but it's not his defense that he is on the team for. I will have to continue to remind myself that Norton is in the outfield right now because Matt Diaz and Mark Kotsay went down with injuries in the same week leaving the team with Josh Anderson and Norton as options in left-field. It will not be pretty for the Braves, but for Norton bashers such as my former self, remind yourselves that he is in town for pinch-hitting duties only.
Also, his flare for the dramatic has given the Braves three wins where Norton has driven home the go-ahead run. Well, if that doesn't scream excellent pinch-hitting potential...nothing does.
Thanks for sweating the small stuff with me.