Patrick Norris' player page
Derrick Robinson's player page
Conger making up for lost time
Parker building on solid foundation
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- If Derrick Robinson and Patrick Norris were characters on a TV show, they'd probably be depicted as enemies or archrivals or, if it were "The Hills," frenemies.
Plot line: two Florida-born, fleet-footed, switch-hitting leadoff-type center fielders, both in the Kansas City Royals system, coming up through the ranks as they strive for that same pot of big league gold at the end of the Minor League rainbow. Hijinks ensue.
Anyone looking to write friction or similar negative intrigue into the script will have to look elsewhere, however.
That's because the only rivalry going on these days between Robinson, aka "D-Rob," and Norris, aka "P-No," is when they battle it out in their favorite video game, Madden '09, with Robinson playing his beloved Dallas Cowboys and Norris leading the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The two have been, pardon the pun, fast friends since the day they met in the Instructional League in 2007. They planned on rooming together in Surprise this fall for the Royals' instructs but found out when they arrived they'd been assigned to rooms down the hall from one another.
No matter, they still hang out together non-stop, with Norris' hotel room (he's in a double, Robinson a triple) serving as "home field" for those Madden marathons.
Robinson, who celebrated his 21st birthday last week, slipped to the fourth round in the 2006 Draft due to concerns about his signability, since he was a football recruit at cornerback at Florida. But his love for baseball, combined with an above-slot offer from the Royals, prompted him to sign with Kansas City.
While he is still developing at the plate, having just finished his second full season, he's impressed everyone with his great work ethic and charismatic personality as well as his game-changing speed.
One of the youngest players on the Wilmington Blue Rocks in the Advanced Class A Carolina League, Robinson was named the club's Player of the Year after hitting .245 with 62 stolen bases. That figure led the organization and tied for third in the Minors.
The switch-hitting Robinson is still making that transition from great athlete to full-time baseball player, but the organization has been very happy with his progress.
His defense is outstanding, he's cut down on his strikeout rate while improving his stolen base percentage and when he's on base, he makes things happen.
"There was a point this season where he was scoring about 80 percent of the time that he reached base," said J.J. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager of scouting and player development. "He can really impact the game when he gets on base."
Norris, 22, was the Royals' 16th-round pick in 2007 out of Oklahoma City University and has spent his first two summers in short-season ball.
His switch-hitting is still a work in progress and something he forced himself to learn during an offseason when a shoulder injury forced him to work out using just the other arm.
The leadoff hitter for the Idaho Falls Chukars this summer, he batted .263, led the Pioneer League by a wide margin with 33 steals and was caught only six times. He also was fifth in the league with 58 runs scored and hit .292 down the stretch.
"He's been a true work-in-progress here, but we're starting to see that glimpse of how when he gets it right the ball really travels," Picollo said of Norris' foray into switch-hitting. "He's got a great attitude about it and he's committed to it, so it's fun to watch."
While two levels of the Minors separated Norris and Robinson this summer as they basically filled identical roles on their respective teams, the two have been enjoying getting to play together in Surprise.
"I root for him and he roots for me," Norris said, acknowledging their relationship might be a little unusual in that respect. "Some guys, if they have somebody they're in competition with, they sometimes want to see them fail."
As for the great debate as to who's faster? They'd rather see it remain an open question.
"I think it's more fun to just let other people talk about who they think is faster," Norris said. "The Royals would never let us race anyway, there would be too much of a risk of one of us getting hurt."
Meanwhile, both are focusing on different aspects of their game in Surprise.
For Norris, it's continuing to improve hitting from the left side as well as his bunting, a facet of Robinson's game he admits he envies. Norris loves the atmosphere of instructional league, where he can do everything he can to improve in a supportive environment.
"There are no handcuffs, no limits, you can do whatever you want and not have anyone yell at you," he said. "It's all about getting a feel for things."
Robinson is working on his approach at the plate and getting on base more consistently.
"He's getting stronger, driving the ball more and gaining confidence in his left-handed swing," Picollo observed. "He's understanding the things he has to do to hit the ball."
While it's way too early to think about what would happen if both reached the Majors, in terms of role-shifting, Picollo admitted it would be a nice problem to have.
"Good leadoff hitters are tough to find throughout the Majors," he said. "I think with two guys who can run like that, our manager would be happy if they were both up there together."
While it's generally accepted that you can't teach speed, both players have ways they keep their greatest assets sharp.
For Norris, it's running on the beach with a parachute near his Florida home.
"It holds you back when you run and I think that increases your speed a little," he said. "If you're slow, you're slow. But I think you can teach quickness."
For Robinson, it's just keeping at it continuously.
"If you don't use it, you lose it," he said. "So I keep running, keep sprinting, keep lifting. This year, I'm taking it to the next level and going to try to go to a facility where they'll put me through an intense workout for speed and strength."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.