As many predicted, it seems that the battle for left field for the Blue Jays didn’t end when spring training was over, when Eric Thames stayed with the club and Travis Snider was sent down to Triple-A. Every misplayed fly ball by Thames and every Snider home run in Las Vegas adds voices to the chorus of #FreeTravisSnider, with people calling for them to be switched.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve been among those voices before. I’m a huge Travis Snider fan, and have been pulling for his success since he came up and started hitting moon shots off unsuspecting pitchers. The Blue Jays front office doesn’t have the luxury of cheering, however; they need to have a more nuanced approach, and make sure they’re doing right by all the players on the team, and what’s best for their success going forward.
I didn’t initially agree with the decision to keep Thames (how much of that was influenced by my Snider fandom is uncertain, but we’ll ignore that for the purpose of this write-up). However, after some consideration, we can notice how this is not only the best solution for the Blue Jays right now, but going forward, regardless of how Alex Anthopoulos feels about the individual players.
I think the most important point is that the Blue Jays believe Thames deserves a real chance at starting every day in left field, without having to look over his shoulder. If they had kept both on the team coming out of spring training, it would have been even more of a topic than it is right now. Everyone would have been looking at John Farrell’s lineup card, and second guessing whether or not he made the right call, or if they’re playing enough. And how would it have affected the players? Would they have had to field questions, day after day about whether they wanted to start/play more/liked the other guy? It would have been a big, blinking, red “DISTRACTION” sign that loomed over the locker room.
There are several reasons the Blue Jays believe this. Snider might have been the highly touted first round pick, but not everyone knows that Thames had his own stripes as a prospect, before injuries set in. After being drafted in the 39th round by the New York Yankees in 2007, he returned to Pepperdine for another year. In 53 games (mostly as the designated hitter) he batted .320, with nine doubles, five triples, and 44 RBI. He was considered to be a “borderline first round talent” before tearing a quad muscle, and the Jays snapped him up in the seventh round. He didn’t play at all in 2008, which set back his development, and kept people from noticing just how good he might have been.
Thames’ rise through the minor league system was rapid, and he improved his OPS at each stop, managing .789 and .864 with GCL and Dunedin in 2009, .895 with New Hampshire in 2010, and an eye-popping 1.033 with Las Vegas in 2011 prior to his call-up. Regardless of how you feel about Las Vegas, if the Blue Jays believe Eric Thames is a first-round talent who got hurt, then they need to see what he can do on the major league level. From his tenure with the Blue Jays, we can notice that GM Alex Anthopoulos wants as much information as he can about the players at his disposal, and will give good talent a chance to succeed. We don’t have enough information about Thames at the major league level, and whether he can be successful. We’re close to one seasons’ worth of at bats- would anyone give up on a prospect after that long?
What if you think that Snider will be the better player? If we believe that, does going with Thames make sense? It does, and the reasoning is based on how the organization has erred with Snider previously.
Thames was the everyday left fielder through the second half of last year, and played well at times. Not well enough to guarantee his spot, but well enough that, coming into spring training, he should have been the favourite for the job (and was). If the team had kept Snider and sent down Thames, and the positions were reversed from what they are now (with Snider struggling, and Thames tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A), we’d be having the same argument we are now, except flipped. And the organization is placed in the difficult spot of again shuffling Snider between Triple-A and Toronto. Would either player be confident in such an arrangement? What would that do for their development, knowing they’d be shunted back and forth depending on who was playing better at a particular time?
The team going with Snider out of spring training would be a clear endorsement of him as the better player, and put a tremendous amount of pressure on him to succeed right away with the former incumbent Thames breathing down his neck. Given them team’s history with Snider- shuffling him up and down, playing and not playing- it’s more than understandable that they would want to be absolutely sure that he’s ready before giving him his spot on the team, and do it without any second guessing or reservations.
The argument is easier if you think that Thames will be the better player. The team endorsed him as the favorite for the left fielder’s job out of spring training, emphasized that he’s the starter from his performance last year, with Snider having to earn his way onto the roster. If Snider ends up playing his way onto the team, great. Injuries, ineffectiveness, or trades may open up a roster spot, or maybe the Blue Jays flip the former first rounder for something of value, from a team with an open outfield position. Maybe they trade Adam Lind, and Jose Bautista ends up moving back to the infield. Maybe Colby Rasmus gets injured in a horrific hunting accident. Who knows? The Blue Jays on opening day this year are much different from the team that broke camp last season- a lot changes over the course of a year.
When we step back from our fandom, and look at it rationally, we can see the direction that the Blue Jays took in picking Eric Thames as the Blue Jays starting left fielder out of spring training, and continuing with him now amidst a growing chorus for Snider. Though Thames has struggled some in the early going, the team needs to let he and Snider play it out for a while, and get past the hot/cold starts they’re having to evaluate who ends up being the better fit long term. The Blue Jays have committed to letting this play out, and let Thames play himself into (or out of) a regular spot. As for Snider, if and when he comes back, the team wants to make sure it’s for good, and not the uncertainty that they’ve subjected him to previously. As we mentioned in the prior paragraph, things change over the course of a year– there’s still a lot of the season left to play out.