Tigers GM defends signing Derek Norris

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers general manager Al Avila expected the questions and he stood his ground Wednesday when asked about the signing of veteran catcher Derek Norris, who is coming off a Major League Baseball suspension stemming from domestic-abuse allegations.

Avila said the Tigers spoke to MLB as well as to Norris, and were satisfied enough to sign him to a minor-league contract Tuesday.

Tigers assistant general manager David Chadd has known Norris from high school. He’s a Kansas native; Chadd has deep Kansas ties.

“When we consulted with (MLB), they were like, ‘The guy served his penalty, he should be able to sign, that’s the way the process works,’” Avila told The News. “We do know the guy, David Chadd has known the guy for a long time, he knows the father, he knows the issue.

“We signed a good kid.”

Norris, 28, signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers, and is likely to start 2018 at Triple-A Toledo, and as the backup catcher. Grayson Greiner, 25, a third-round pick by the Tigers in 2014, is penciled in to be the starter for the Mud Hens.

Norris figures to get his at-bats, though, even if it’s at designated hitter, and could be the first catcher called up if the Tigers have an injury at the major-league level. James McCann — barring a trade, of course; his name has made its way into the rumor mill — will be the Tigers starting catcher, to be backed up by John Hicks.

Norris was a fourth-round pick by the Washington Nationals in 2007, and had some decent seasons, from a power perspective, with the Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres and, last year, with the Tampa Bay Rays. Twice, he’s hit 14 homers in a season. In 2015, he had 62 RBIs.

He was suspended by MLB for the final month of the 2017 season, forfeiting $100,000 in salary — the money went to charities that advocate against domestic abuse — after his former fiancee wrote on Instagram that he had verball and physically abused her in 2015. The Instagram post was later deleted. According to the New York Times, he was the fifth player suspended under the league’s rather-new domestic-violence policy.

Norris, as Avila pointed out, was not charged.

“We know this kid,” Avila said. “It’s not his character.”

The Tigers have shied away from “problem” players in the past, among them star reliever Aroldis Chapman, who also earned a 30-game suspension from MLB, in 2016, after a 2015 incident in which he alleged choked his girlfriend and fired a gun during a dispute. That said, the Tigers once traded for starter Alfredo Simon, after he may or may not have killed a man. He was acquitted of involuntary murder in 2011.

The Tigers this week also made their first major-league signing of the offseason, agreeing to a $1.75-million, one-year deal with defensive-upside outfielder Leonys Martin.

Martin, 29, who’s played with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs, is projected to be Detroit’s starting center fielder in 2018, with Mikie Mahtook shifting to left — his better position, Avila said — and Nick Castellanos in right.

JaCoby Jones theoretically could platoon with Martin, though Jones has to prove he can hit at the major-league level. He could be headed to more time at Toledo.

Martin’s career OPS is just .661, and it was just .513 last year split between the Mariners and Cubs, but he does have some pop. He hit 15 homers in 2016 with the Mariners, and he can fly on the bases, twice topping 30 stolen bases.

“He’s a perfect fit for our center field,” Avila said, adding his range should help Castellanos in right. “Our outfield is much improved from a defensive point of view. Why his hitting may have suffered, hopefully we can fix that with (Lloyd) McClendon.”

Avila and the Tigers brass are preparing to head to Disney World for the winter meetings, where they could be active — they actually could be active before arriving there. They’re looking for one or two veteran starting pitchers — nothing expensive, of course to round out the rotation — and could be primed for a big trade or two, with second baseman Ian Kinsler the name that most folks are watching.

Detroit also has the No. 1 pick in next week’s Rule 5 draft, and there are some intriguing names available, including former top Twins prospect Nick Burdi.