Clock ticking on Jays' Snider

Toronto Blue Jays' Eric Thames (R) is congratulated by teammate Travis Snider after hitting a home...

Toronto Blue Jays' Eric Thames (R) is congratulated by teammate Travis Snider after hitting a home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the third inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto July 28, 2011. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Ken Fidlin, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 PM ET

Everybody should have known better, but nobody did. It was the spring of 2009 and Travis Snider was ripping the cover off the ball. With only two full seasons of minor league apprenticeship behind him, he had just turned 21.

“If he deserves to be here, then he should be here,” said then GM J.P. Ricciardi. The fact that nobody disagreed doesn’t make it right.

Seduced by Snider’s .380 batting average and 1.098 OPS that spring, the Jays took him north and thus began the cycle of success-failure-injury-confusion that has followed the Blue Jay prospect through three seasons, bringing him no closer to his goal: to be a consistent player in the big leagues.

“It’s been a mental challenge for me the last few years,” said Snider after a pre-camp workout at Dunedin Stadium Friday.

Nobody can say that things would have turned out better had Snider taken a slower path of incremental promotions to find his way to the top, but they couldn’t have turned out much worse.

“You don’t deal with a lot of adversity as a young amateur athlete,” he reasons. “I was a kid who had a lot of success at a young age and I got here a little earlier than I might have.

“Unfortunately things have gone differently from what I would have thought or had planned. But anytime you talk about a life, whether it’s baseball or just personal issues, it’s something you have to take in stride, face your challenges and make whatever adjustments need to be made. You have to learn to get through your experiences, both the good and the bad, and take from them what will make you better, whether it’s as a player or a person.”

At the dawn of the 2012 baseball season, Snider finds himself at the centre of the only true positional competition facing the Jays this spring. He and Eric Thames will duke it out for the starting job in left field, with journeymen like Ben Francisco and Rajai Davis hovering in the wings if both Snider and Thames fail to measure up.

In many ways 2011 was Snider’s toughest challenge. He made the team out of spring training but never found his stride in the majors. He was sent to Las Vegas on April 28 when he was hitting just .184. He came back to the bigs in July, but was sent to triple-A again on Aug. 4, ending up with a .225 batting average and 56 strikeouts in 187 at-bats with the Jays.

Now entering his fifth big-league training camp, you have to wonder if the clock is not ticking on his status as a prospect.

“I wouldn’t put that kind of emphasis on it,” said manager John Farrell. “He’s very well aware of the kind of competition he and Eric are going to be in for the majority of the everyday at-bats. Travis is still a multi-talented player seeking consistent production at the big league level and we’re going to give him that opportunity.”

Whether or not the organization is placing some urgency on the next six weeks, it’s clear that Snider is.

“I look at it as a fresh start,” he said. “I had some ups and downs last year with a couple of injuries thrown in. I’m just looking to make that next step and becoming an everyday major-leaguer and then doing what it takes to stay at that level.

“I’m really counting on making that next step this year and then to be in the hunt with an absolutely great group of guys. I can’t imagine being someplace else, away from all these guys I have been grinding it out with, either in the minor leagues or up here. I look forward to coming to work here every day and trying to get better.”

Thames is going to be a formidable opponent for Snider in this position battle. Without much fanfare, he had a decent first season at the plate, consistent enough that he was often pencilled into the No. 2 spot in the order, with reasonable success. A below-average defender, we’re hearing now that Thames spent the winter strengthening his arm.

Working with triple-A hitting coach Chad Mottola, Snider found some success at Las Vegas (.327 BA, .873 OPS) that he hopes to bring to the table this spring.

“Most important thing I’m trying to do is to get back to using my hands,” said Snider. “Last year I struggled a lot with different stances and trying different things and not being able to find what it takes to be a great hitter. To me, that is explosive hands. That’s been the No. 1 focus for me this off-season: strengthening my wrists and forearms and working on some mechanics that I had ironed out at the triple-A level before I got hurt.”

Another subtle change in approach involves Snider’s conditioning which he believes has left his musculature slightly less susceptible to pulls and strains like the one to a chest muscle that interrupted his spring training last year.

“Last year I ‘leaned out’ coming in to camp and ended up having some little injuries that I would have liked not to have happened,” he said. “This year, it’s a little more about listening to my body. I know what I need to do to get ready but I’m curbing the intensity and the over-enthusiasm that can lead to you getting injured.”

Snider is not alone in his hope that 2012 will be a year that fulfills his potential. A lot of people, both inside the organization and outside it, believe he’s overdue for a breakout.

 


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