MINNEAPOLIS – They are linked by their team, their development, their promise, and, for the past month at least, their regular presence in trade speculation.
On Sunday, left-hander Daniel Norris and centre-fielder Dalton Pompey shared a new connection together by playing in the Futures Game, each showing well in the annual prospect showcase that’s part of baseball’s annual all-star festivities.
The breakthrough seasons both have enjoyed so far in 2014 may be setting them up to one day become fixtures with the Toronto Blue Jays, or simply upping their value as chips to be parlayed into immediate reinforcements before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
No matter what the future holds, their worth to the organization is clear.
"That’s our future," says Omar Malave, the manager at single-A Dunedin who graduated both players to double-A New Hampshire in June.
Big things were always expected from Norris. He was a second-round pick in 2011 only because a commitment to Clemson scared other teams off, but the Blue Jays convinced him to play pro ball.
The initial returns weren’t good.
Between rookie ball Bluefield and short-season A Vancouver, he allowed a total of 40 earned runs in 42.2 innings. His hits per nine was 12.2, the walks per nine 3.8. Things didn’t get better early in the 2013 season, when he posted a 10.07 ERA through his first seven games.
Why can’t I get people out, he asked himself, but never in a woe-is-me sense.
"It’s weird," he says, "(the struggles) made me love the game more because it was so humbling. Going through high school, you never experience failure like that. If you can’t string together a good game, you start looking for other things to make you happy, and baseball is everything to me. I’m always going to love the game no matter what, even if I get run out. Every day, I was excited to come to the ballpark and play catch. I started focusing on the really small things."
One big thing helped, too – his faith. A devout Christian, Norris fully committed to process over results, trusting that things would turn. Eventually they did.
"I really told myself it’s part of God’s plan," he says. "You can work hard, you can do everything, but at the end of the day you’ve got to trust Him and it’s going to click. I found comfort and I found peace in that."
Pompey is what’s known in baseball parlance as a projection pick. In his draft year of 2010, he barely carried 170 pounds on his wispy 6-foot-1 frame but he had the athleticism of a sprinter and boy could he run.
The Blue Jays bet on his tools and selected him in the 16th round, starting him in the rookie ball Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old and watching him incrementally make gains.
Broken hamate bones, first in his right hand in 2011 and then in his left in 2012, stalled his progress, but each year he grew stronger and gained experience, and that allowed his natural abilities to grow.
Things really started to turn last year at single-A Lansing, when Pompey finally managed to play a full season. He posted a .752 OPS in 115 games and stole 38 bases in 48 attempts, and the success carried over into this season.
"Now I’m really focused on preparing myself, getting into certain routines," says Pompey. "Overall confidence, just believing in what I can do, and being the player I can be. The game of baseball is so mental, it’s ridiculously mental, and we work on the physical part a lot more than the mental part. When I really focus on being positive, and taking positive things way from the game that might not have positive aspects to it, it helps me prepare for the next day."
Everything changed in one start for Norris in 2013. Vince Horsman, the pitching coach at Lansing, kept on hammering him to trust in himself and his abilities, to be a bulldog on the mound.
"Literally one game it just clicked," Norris recalls, "and I was like, ‘Oh man, yeah. I’ll just do that.’"
"That’s it," he says. "It was a whole process of the game, I went out there and, not that punch outs are real important, I went out there and dominated a lineup and it showed me I could still do that because I hadn’t in so long, I hadn’t even dominated a hitter in so long, and it was just like, ‘Man, that’s it right there.’ It really opened my eyes and made me a believer again. Ever since then you’ve got to trust it."
Starting with an outing May 13 against the Great Lake Loons, when he allowed one hit and three walks with five strikeouts in four innings, Norris experienced a rapid period of development. Over his next 16 games, covering 63.1 innings, he struck out 83 batters, posted an ERA of 2.13, allowed only 50 hits with 30 walks.
As a reward, his final start of the season was at high-A Dunedin, where he allowed one hit in five shutout innings.
The progress was no fluke. He didn’t waste a single throw, in his side sessions or even in the most mundane catch session, along the way.
"It’s not just about getting your arm loose, it’s about feeling it and putting the ball where you want it," says Norris. "Every single time you throw a baseball it’s an opportunity to feel that. As a pitcher you’re always looking for these little things that will click, like ‘Oh, move my arm a little bit more and I can command it to the glove side a little better.’ I do that every day."
This season, Pompey has taken his game to a new level. In 70 games at Dunedin, he posted an OPS of .868 and stole 29 bases, getting caught just twice. The additional strength is not only helping him put more balls in the gap, but also run faster on the bases.
Perhaps even more important is what Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays assistant general manager who oversees the farm system, describes as his "mental maturity."
How does that translate?
"What really gets frustrating is when you hit the ball hard or do something positive but the game of baseball reacts to it as if it’s negative," says Pompey. "I’m trying to take a step back and realize what you did and analyzing the situation, trying not to overreact because when you let the negativity pile up, you dig yourself into a hole you can’t get out of. In New Hampshire, for example, I’ve been having great at-bats and everybody that’s shown up is telling me that, but on paper it doesn’t show that right now."
Working with Roberto and Sandy Alomar at extended spring training and during their in-season stops roving the system helped Pompey with that. So too did their various sessions on specific skills like bunting.
"I wasn’t a great bunter but this year I have like seven or eight bunt hits, that’s really helped me out," says Pompey. "Tim Raines, his experience has helped me out a lot, too. Every coach has helped me out in some way. I don’t take everything they say, but there’s some stuff that really clicks with me and I owe them the success I’m having, as well as my parents, too. They never played, but they tried to make things simpler with me in terms of life."
Among the messages from his parents is that the ups and downs in baseball can be like the ups and downs in life. In both cases, persistence, perseverance and perspective matter.
Perspective is a big part of life for Norris, who is anything but a cookie cutter baseball player. Rather than buying a sports car with his $2 million signing bonus, he bought his own dream car – a Volkswagen Westfalia microbus, once the choice of hippies everywhere.
During the off-season he sleeps in it for weeks on end, travelling around searching for places to surf. Rather than fancy rims, it’s got a bunk bed. Norris isn’t all tricked up either. There’s no bling around his neck, only a subtle cross that is a reminder of his faith.
"It’s atypical, but it’s left-handed," says LaCava. "There have been many lefties who do it a little bit different. That’s his style, but his differences don’t affect anybody else. He’s got a real good moral compass and he’s grounded. That’s probably helped him when he’s struggling, and that’s probably going to help him as he succeeds."
The laid-back, gentle-natured surfer dude he is off the field shouldn’t confuse anyone about what he’s like on the mound. Norris is in it to win it – don’t get in his way.
"I like to call it controlled chaos, it’s so chaotic you’re just, let’s go, let’s go," he says. "It’s not like I’m, all right, game time, let’s go. I get out there and I’m so in tune with what’s going on, I’m so focused, I literally care so much, the best way I can put it is a burning passion. Off the field, I don’t talk a lot, I have a lot of friends, it’s not like I’m unfriendly, but I’m not very outgoing. But on the mound I’m on fire, I can’t control it, I don’t remember a lot of stuff from the games because you’re so mentally exhausted after."
The results so far this year have been well worth it. In 13 games at Dunedin, he went 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA, 1.025 WHIP and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The transition to double-A has been a bit rougher with a 4.24 ERA in four starts, and an inability to escape a 36-pitch first inning his last time out.
"It’s good to have those outings because when you get on a roll you start getting complacent," says Norris. "You’re like, ‘This is going good, this is going good, I should keep doing that.’ No matter who you are, you’ve got to stay hungry, even if you’re going good. A start like that last start keeps me on track.
"It’s been a good year, and it’s showing me what I’m capable of. I still know I have a ton of work to do, I know how much better I can get. I’m anxious to get there. I see that hard work pays off, it makes me want to work even harder so I can have more pay off."
He threw a clean 11-pitch second inning in the Futures Game with one strikeout for the US Team.
"This," he says, "is a huge honour for me."
Pompey remembers seeing Joey Votto play in the 2007 Futures Game and watched Brett Lawrie in the 2010 contest along with the rest of his teammates on the junior national team.
"I remember thinking it would be a crazy experience to play in that game, to one day have the opportunity to do that," he says. "Now I’m here. It’s a surreal feeling. Everything is going by so fast, I’m just trying to slow it down a little and enjoy it."
He definitely made the most of it with two line drive singles and a run scored while playing all eight innings in centre field. The second base hit, sent sharply into right field, came on a 97 mph heater from Robert Stephenson.
The hits have been harder to come by in New Hampshire, where he’s posted a .536 OPS in 15 games since his promotion. He’s undeterred.
"Getting to double-A was a goal and I’m there now, trying to get that experience," says Pompey. "A lot of people tell me the competition in double-A is close to the big-leagues. I can see where I’m at in terms of the other guys I’m playing against. It’s not too different. The only thing that’s different is the experience level some of these guys have. But I don’t want to settle at that goal. I want to continue to progress in terms of the process instead of the outcome right now."
Playing on the same teams for much of the past two years, Norris and Pompey, both 21, have become friends and fans of one another’s work.
Of Pompey, Norris says: "You could see it last year in Lansing: man, he can fly; man, he can swing; man, he’s just a good player. This year, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ He’s gotten faster, he’s hitting from both sides of the plate better, playing even better defence in the outfield. The scary thing is he’s just now scratching the surface of what he can do."
Of Norris, Pompey says: "He’s pitching with more confidence, for sure. His mound presence is a lot different than it was in the past, I think he believes he’s one of the best prospects in the game. That’s really taken him over the edge. There’s a different look to him than I’ve ever seen."
The two flew to Minneapolis together, prepared to showcase themselves on a grand stage, and then they did just that. The van, which Pompey has been in and says "has a lot of cool stuff in it," stayed back.
"We should have taken the van," says Norris, "but we wouldn’t have been here yet."
They both have places to go, whether with the Blue Jays or with somebody else.