With just over a week remaining in Spring Training, the Blue Jays have declared a winner in The Battle For Left Field (TM), choosing incumbent Eric Thames over Travis Snider.
Thames had the lead coming into the competition, and really has done nothing to this point in the spring to let loose his grip on the job, hitting .333/.380/.511 and showing that he has become an average defensive left fielder, at least. Of course, Snider didn’t do anything to lose the job either, hitting .271/.340/.625 and leading the Blue Jays with four spring home runs while playing excellent defense and stealing a couple of bases. Both Snider and Thames went 0-for-2 in the extra-inning win over Boston Sunday afternoon, with Snider driving in the tying run in the bottom of the 6th to give him 16 RBIs in 17 spring games.
Snider’s demotion certainly isn’t the end of the line for him as a Blue Jay – he’ll go down to Las Vegas and tear it up, as he always does, and eventually he’ll be back. It might be sooner than later, as General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was very clear in saying that in his mind, the competition for left field is not over. It will continue throughout the year. He’s told Snider, and will tell Thames, that things can change at any time.
Anthopoulos was very impressed with Snider’s spring, that the power is back in his bat and the speed and defense is very strong. And though Snider didn’t do anything to lose the job, neither did Thames, and since Thames is the one who had it for the last three months of 2011, he gets to keep it.
Here’s my entire conversation with Anthopoulos on Snider’s demotion:
Certainly this doesn’t mean Snider’s time with the Blue Jays is over, or that they’ve given up on him. What it does mean, though, is that a sad chapter in Blue Jays’ history continues. Travis Snider could have established himself by now as one of the up-and-coming young stars in baseball. He should be, by now, a major-league regular, a middle-of-the-order bat, one of the guys around whom a good team builds its lineup. Instead, he’s a lesson on how not to handle a top prospect.
The Blue Jays had the 14th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and had their eye on a young pitcher from the Pacific Northwest named Tim Lincecum. When the Giants took him 10th, the Jays turned to Plan B and grabbed themselves a high school slugger from the same area. Snider was ranked the #53 prospect in the game by Baseball America after a half-season of rookie ball and was their 11th-ranked prospect going into the next year, 2008. That season, Snider started at high-A Dunedin, was promoted to AA New Hampshire after just three weeks, and spent most of the summer in the Eastern League before getting called up to Syracuse in August, where he hit .344/.386/.516 in just 18 games. For the season, Snider hit.275/.358/.480 at three levels of the minor leagues – as a 20 year-old – and he was called up to the major leagues on August 29th.
Was he called up so soon because he’d earned the look for team that was out of the race going into the season’s last month, or was he called up because J.P. Ricciardi wanted to prove to the fans that he’d drafted a really good young star in the making? More believe the latter than the former, but I think it was because Ricciardi thought he really had something and wanted to see Snider in the bigs for a month.
Travis didn’t disappoint, hitting .301/.338/.466 over 80 plate appearances in his late-season call-up, and broke camp in 2009 as the starting left-fielder, sort of. One of the problems was that in Cito Gaston, the Blue Jays had a manager who didn’t believe that young left-handed hitters should play against left-handed pitchers, as he’d shown in the past with players such as Shawn Green, John Olerud and others.
Snider got off to a great start in 2009, hitting two home runs in an April 15th win over the Twins that jacked his early-season numbers to .318/.400/.864. But the Twins started a lefty the next day, so Snider sat. In fact, the Blue Jays faced a left-handed starter so often over the next 10 games that Snider played less than half the time. He was then allowed to play every day for a couple of weeks, but slumped badly and was sent down before the end of May so that the Jays could call up Joe Inglett.
That was the beginning, and it continued through a number of injuries and a wacky September in 2010 when Snider, who had hit in the bottom third of the order his entire major-league career, was suddenly installed as the lead-off man – but only every other day, sharing duties with Fred Lewis.
Last season, Snider made the team out of Spring Training, and was told the job was his long-term, but Anthopoulos and John Farrell didn’t like what they saw a month into the season, and he was sent out before the end of April with instructions to rework his swing to get the power back into it. While he was doing that, Thames came up and took the left-field job.
Snider came back in early July and hit the ground running, then slumped, and when the Jays were ready to bring Brett Lawrie to the big leagues, it was Snider who went back down, despite the fact that he had outperformed Thames (.682 OPS to .655) in the month that they were on the team together.
Thames picked things up, and had a .760 OPS from that point on, and spent the winter making himself into a much better defensive outfielder than he had been before, as well as working hard on improving his swing. It has shown this spring, without question.
The bad news is that the Blue Jays have probably wasted two or three years of Travis Snider’s development, and may well wind up losing him as an asset before he blossoms. The good news is that in Eric Thames, they might have uncovered a gem that they otherwise may have overlooked.
They certainly appear to be conscious of the mistakes they made with Snider in the way they’ve handled Thames. They haven’t been afraid to hit Thames near the top of the line-up, and they stuck with him through hot streaks and through slumps. So far, that’s paid off. And for all the talk about Snider, there’s no question that Thames is a good player and a great kid – he just doesn’t bring the defense or speed that Snider does, and his ceiling doesn’t appear to be as high.
Hopefully we get to see them both become stars in Toronto someday.
In other news, Dustin McGowan took himself out of a minor-league start in the second of his scheduled five innings with soreness in the plantar fascia of his right foot. He had to be taken off the field on a golf cart, but was walking later in the afternoon. He saw the Jays’ team podiatrist, and it was determined that he hadn’t torn the plantar fascia, which is very good news indeed. McGowan, who is trying to come back to the big leagues after undergoing three different arm surgeries (with a knee surgery tossed in just for fun), was in no mood to talk to reporters after getting treatment, so Anthopoulos spoke to us instead. And the General Manager didn’t seem terribly worried, at all. Here’s what he had to say:
Later on in the afternoon, while he was out talking about the Snider demotion, Anthopoulos said that he’d just gotten word that McGowan is doing even better than he expected to be, so it really may not be a long-term thing at all. In any case, it’s difficult to imagine Dustin being ready to make a major-league start on April 11th, which is the first time the Blue Jays need a 5th starter this season. That means the door swings open for Aaron Laffey or Kyle Drabek to swoop in.
Laffey started Sunday’s game against the Red Sox, and wasn’t good. He gave up five runs on nine hits – five of which went for extra bases – over his five innings, though he didn’t walk anyone. Laffey spoke to the gathered assemblage afterwards:
Drabek gets his next chance to impress on Tuesday night, when the Jays visit the Yankees over in Tampa. We’ll have that game for you on the Blue Jays Radio Network, beginning at 7:00PM Eastern. Join us, won’t you?
Please give me a follow on The Twitter, you can find me @wilnerness590. Travis Snider is there as well, @LunchboxHero45, and Eric Thames can be found @EThames14.
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