SARASOTA, Fla. — New Orioles outfielder Travis Snider may be the leading candidate to replace veteran Nick Markakis in right field, but he isn’t taking anything for granted this spring.
Playing parts of seven seasons without ever recording as many as 360 plate appearances in a single campaign, the 27-year-old can’t dwell on the opportunity presented to him in Baltimore after the free-agent departures of Markakis and slugger Nelson Cruz. Call it a force of habit for a former first-round pick who’s seen more disappointment than success in his major league career with numerous minor-league demotions and nagging injuries.
“I don’t worry about what happened last year and who you guys say I’m replacing,” Snider said in an interview with WNST.net. “I came here to play when they tell me to play and where they tell me to play. For me, the focus remains on the day to day of getting better and when they put my name in the lineup, I’ll be ready.”
Fair or not, the pressure is on Snider to perform as he represents the Orioles’ most significant addition of the offseason. The beginning of his career doesn’t remotely stack up to Markakis’ nine-year run in Baltimore, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette hopes Snider’s .776 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2014 — Markakis’ was .729 — is a sign of a once-heralded prospect finally figuring it out at the major league level.
Snider’s numbers spiked in the second half of 2014 as he hit .288 with nine home runs, 24 runs batted in, and an .880 OPS to help lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a wild-card berth. The numbers reflected the kind of prospect Snider once was in posting a .968 OPS in 835 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.
Even if his offense remains a question as a .246 lifetime hitter according to William Hill Sports, the Orioles already like what they’ve seen from Snider defensively as he will potentially replace a two-time Gold Glove winner in right field. The left-handed thrower was viewed as a good defender in Pittsburgh and was frequently used as a defensive replacement when not in the starting lineup.
“I don’t care who you are, you always have these preconceived ideas and visual and then you actually see it,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I watched Travis Snider run two balls down in right field during [batting practice]. You take something out of everything.”
After five disappointing years with Toronto in which he could never live up to his potential as the 14th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Snider was traded to Pittsburgh midway through the 2012 season. His improvement at the plate hardly came overnight — the left-handed hitter batted just .215 in 2013 — but he credits the winning culture in Pittsburgh over the last two years for changing his mindset, which led to his own improvement in 2014.
After being acquired in exchange for minor-league pitchers Stephen Tarpley and Steven Vault, Snider believes playing for a club that has advanced to the postseason in two of the last three years and is coming off its first division title in 17 years is the perfect environment to pick up where he left off in his final year with the Pirates.
“I’ve been able to take some steps forward in my career and the way I approach each day by remaining focused on each day and not worrying about stat lines or box scores and those types of things,” Snider said. “As a young player, I got caught up worrying too much about myself. Being part of a winning culture, it made it easy to buy in and knowing that you’re playing for each other and the pressure is taken off of your personal accolades and put onto the team and what you have to do each night to get the win. It makes baseball a whole lot more fun when you play that way.”
With Snider and the impending signing of infielder Everth Cabrera the only notable position players added to the mix this winter, the Orioles will likely need a breakout performance from an unheralded name similar to what they received from Steve Pearce a year ago to give themselves the best chance to make it back to the postseason. A former Pirate himself, Pearce rose from anonymity at age 31 last year to hit 21 home runs and post a .930 OPS and is now being counted on to fill a regular role this season.
It’s the perfect example to which a player like Snider can aspire after years of failing to live up to expectations as one of the best prospects in the game.
“Steve Pearce was one of the best stories in baseball last year, and that was one of the first things that I told him,” Snider said. “Understanding that this game and this business doesn’t always go the way that we plan, the guys that are able to overcome that adversity and make the most of those opportunities [succeed]. It was a lot of fun for me to watch him do what he did last year.
“We all get humbled at some point in this game. Opportunities come and opportunities go, but understanding where that focus remains and to see guys go out there and do what he did last year, that’s pretty cool.”
The opportunity will be there for Snider this season, but it will be up to him to take advantage.