Toronto Blue Jays Position Battle: Travis Snider vs. Eric Thames UPDATED

Steven GoldmanMLB Lead BloggerMarch 23, 2012

Travis Snider: Slugging this spring, but not yet guaranteed a job.
Travis Snider: Slugging this spring, but not yet guaranteed a job.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Travis Snider is one of baseball’s great mysteries.

A former first-round pick (14th overall in 2006), Snider has put up terrific hitting numbers in the minor leagues, averaging .306/.379/.522 overall. The major leagues have been a different story however, with .248/.307/.423 rates and 236 strikeouts in 799 at-bats.

There have been some physical problems mixed in, including a wrist injury, but the southpaw slugger has simply failed to control the strike zone against right-handers (.257/.318/.449 with 173 strikeouts in 643 at-bats) and has simply vanished against same-side pitching (.212/.260/.314).

Snider is also a subpar defensive player.

Overall, he has been one of those players whose failure to develop has kept the Jays from getting off of the 80-something-win treadmill they have been on for years.

When the wrist put him out in August, Eric Thames took his place in left field. A career .308/.385/.535 hitter in 242 minor league games, including a terrific .352/.423/.610 at Triple-A (53 games).

Thames hit .280/.317/.507 in 56 games before falling off a cliff in September. Ironically, he presented some of the same problems as Thames: he struck out 88 times in 362 at-bats. The strikeouts aren’t a problem in and of themselves (remember, a strikeout is just another out), but when a player strikes out too often as a percentage of his times at the plate, it is difficult to achieve consistency.

Like Snider, the left-handed hitting Thames struggled against left-handed pitching, hitting .279/.334/.475 against right-handers, but only .209/.242/.395 against lefties, albeit in a small sample. He also will not make anyone forget Tris Speaker, Curt Flood or a young Andruw Jones.

Spring training statistics are almost valueless given the small sample size, mix of major- and minor-league pitchers and fielders and wind-blown park environments, but baseball people take them seriously when sorting out position battles, so we have to as well, at insofar as tracking the competition.

In this case, Thames and Snider have kept things tight, with an edge for the latter. Thames has hit .324 with one home run, Snider .325 with four home runs. This would seem to match their regular-season power potential—Snider has the greater power potential, if only he could just put the ball in play.

Jays manager John Farrell has not given any indication of a preference to date, but given Snider’s numerous trials and failures, he seems like a better change-of-scene candidate than option for one more chance.

That said, there are only so many positions open for a cube-shaped designated hitter, so despite Snider’s still-great potential—he’s still only 24, and more than a year younger than Thames—his trade value may only be so great. The choice is between a player who has a low ceiling, but is close to reaching it (Thames) versus the what-could-be of Snider.

Given that the Jays are unlikely to go anywhere this year, Snider might be the better choice in terms of gambling on the high side, but you could understand it if the Jays just didn’t want to go there again.

UPDATE: The Jays made their choice on Sunday, sending Snider to minor league camp where he will continue to rake in the hot desert sun. As discussed above, Thames isn't anything like an impact player, has some of the same weaknesses as Snider, and slumped badly at the end of the season, perhaps a sign that major-league pitchers had figured him out. This may be a decision that the Jays will need to undo sooner than later.

At 24, Snider still retains potential, but unless he can cut down on a strikeout rate of around 30 percent (which works out to approximately 180 whiffs in 600 at-bats), consistency will elude him. His Triple-A K-rate is only 22 percent. Those Triple-A hurlers are in the minors for a reason, but they aren't so clueless or weak as to be unable to exploit a weakness that major-league scouts have seen. It seems more likely that Snider, for whatever reason, has been unable to make necessary adjustments in the majors. The ability is there, but he's losing the mind game. He might be nothing more than a platoon DH at best, but he could be a good one. He just needs to stop chasing--the percentage of out-of-zone pitches he swung at would have ranked in the bottom of the AL worst-ten had he qualified--and show the same understanding of the zone he has shown in Las Vegas.