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Kid's Going To Be a Hit
HE COULD have been a server, heeding the come-on posted by the diner across the street from Dunedin Stadium that read real men WEAR APRONS. Instead, to the delight of hundreds of fans in a queue stretching from the third base line to the centerfield wall, Travis Snider was a signer. So while several of his teammates were dishing out food during a spring training barbecue for season-ticket holders, Snider was satisfying their appetite for his autograph. Only 21, Snider downplayed his popularity with the same humility that has won over coaches and team executives. "We wore name tags," he said sheepishly. "Maybe that helped."
Snider needed no introduction to the Blue Jays' faithful who have been eagerly anticipating his arrival in the heart of the batting order since the 2006 draft, when Toronto took him with the 14th overall pick. Since then the tag affixed to Snider has been CAN'T MISS. And when asked for his early impressions of Snider, hitting coach Gene Tenace said, "You mean Boy Wonder?"
Snider may look young, but he has the bat skills of a mature hitter, drawing comparisons with Nationals slugger Adam Dunn—albeit with the ability to hit for average as well as power. While zooming through three levels of the minor leagues last season, Snider batted .275 (.349 OBP, .480 slugging) with 23 home runs and 91 RBIs. After a late-August call-up to the majors he hit .301 in 24 games and now says that playing in the big leagues was "easier than I thought."
Consider Snider's presence, and surging popularity, a sign of the times in Toronto. Even with holdovers such as centerfielder Vernon Wells and ace Roy Halladay, the emphasis is on the team's future. The next wave of talent, headed by Snider, could be playing prominent roles by midseason. For instance, Opening Day catcher Rod Barajas is merely a placeholder for hard-hitting prospect J.P. Arencibia, a first-round pick in 2007. First baseman David Cooper, infielder Bradley Emaus and a host of decent young starters, led by 24-year-old Ricky Romero and 22-year-old Brett Cecil, are also on the brink of sticking in the majors.
Manager Cito Gaston likens the next generation of Blue Jays to the core of his 1989 team that won the AL East. It's a bold comparison considering the '89 team had a lot of pop. Last year Toronto finished 10th in the American League in batting average, home runs and on-base percentage; 11th in walks, slugging percentage and runs scored; and 12th in hits. No player topped 20 home runs, 80 RBIs or a .500 slugging percentage.
Even so, the offense has fewer question marks than the rotation, which barely resembles the outfit that led the league in ERA in '08. While Halladay remains one of the game's best, injuries to Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum have left the Blue Jays with 24-year-old Jesse Litsch as the only reliable arm behind Halladay. During a midseason demotion last year Litsch cut down on throwing his cutter and relied more on a four-seam fastball that made him a more overpowering pitcher down the stretch.
"If not for those injuries we never would have found out about Litsch," says general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Now similar opportunities are available to Cecil and Romero to earn the final two starting spots. But in a division that has three teams capable of winning 95 games, such uncertainty in the rotation is not encouraging. "We're realistic," says Ricciardi with a shrug. But when the G.M. looks beyond this season he can only smile and say, "We're excited."
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
The loss of three-fifths of its starting staff—and subsequent refusal to replace those pitchers through free agency or the trade market—have the Blue Jays mourning the collapse of what was one of last season's strongest rotations. With significant questions surrounding the 3-4-5 slots, the team should address the lack of depth by turning back the calendar to the 1970s and going to a four-man rotation. Having an ace such as Roy Halladay (left), among the most efficient pitchers in the game, is essential to this plan. Toronto also has a strong and deep bullpen that includes four effective southpaws, allowing the club to hedge against overworking its starters. Cito Gaston can't get last year's rotation back, but he can improve this year's by sending his best pitchers to the mound more often.