Where does Daniel Norris fit in Toronto Blue Jays 2015 plans?

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Daniel Norris had a magical season in 2014 for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Beginning the year as a raw-but-talented member of high-A Dunedin, Daniel Norris shot through the Toronto Blue Jays system to finish the year in the Major Leagues, and is now considered the organization’s top prospect by many.

Still, Norris has often become buried under the narrative of Aaron Sanchez entering 2015 Spring Training.  Sanchez, the Blue Jays’ other high-ceiling pitching prospect on the cusp, is seen by many as Toronto’s best option to fill the closer’s role short-term.  While Daniel Norris, the likeliest pitcher to force Sanchez from the fifth spot in the rotation, has managed to stay relatively out of the spotlight, that may be just how he wants it.

Norris is an outlier, the most unique young man to come through the Blue Jays system in many, many years.  After signing with Toronto in 2011 and receiving a $2M signing bonus, the tall lefty made one major purchase: a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, which he has named “Shaggy”.  This wasn’t just a novelty purchase for the Tennessee native, Norris lives in the van throughout Spring Training.

He breaks the 700 mile trip from Johnson City to Dunedin up into a few days, stopping each day to surf and take in the scenery.  He cooks all of his meals on his small camper stove.  His trip plan is loose, as Norris says “I’ll buy, like, $20 of gas and then stop when it runs out. I’ve done that a number of times.”

Once in Dunedin, Norris says that he parks the van at a beach 10 minutes from the Blue Jays complex, where the police officer that patrols the area from Thursday to Sunday allows him to camp out.  From Monday to Wednesday, he sets up shop in the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart.  The young millionaire on the brink of MLB stardom, asleep in a 37-year old camper van.

Some question whether the free-living Norris takes baseball seriously enough, but he is quick to shoot down any notion that this game is not his first love.  “I feel like I loved it more than even my friends and stuff,” Norris says.  “I’m always thinking about it and daydreaming about it. I love the outdoors and surfing and photography and all that good stuff. But I don’t necessarily daydream about that stuff; I daydream about baseball. I can’t stop thinking about it, actually.”

So, when April nears, will Shaggy be headed to Buffalo or Toronto?  Norris’ meteoric ascension through the Blue Jays system was very encouraging, but the organization may want to see him settle in and re-create his success with AAA Buffalo, ironing out any kinks before receiving a mid-season call up to the big club.  The Blue Jays will not make it through 2015 using 5 starting pitchers.  Injuries will come up, players will under-perform.  That’s the reality of baseball, and when it happens, having Daniel Norris in the holster is a luxury.

While Sanchez is a candidate for a bullpen role, I would prefer to see Norris remain as a AAA starter to begin the season as opposed to being a member of the MLB bullpen.  If Norris can beat out Sanchez for the fifth spot, even better.

Norris has a much more complete pitching arsenal than Sanchez at this point, and his ability to throw his third and fourth pitches for quality strikes could make him a more appealing long-term prospect as a starter.  Sanchez has rare, electric arm talent, but has struggled with walks through his career and may have trouble getting through lineups the second and third time until he develops a deeper repertoire.

At some point in 2015, barring a significant setback, Daniel Norris should be starting baseball games for the Toronto Blue Jays.  The Jays will hope this is due to his own dominance and not due to the failure of Sanchez, but if one of these young arms click for Toronto, the rotation could be taken to the next level.

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