FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Promise and potential, especially when you streak to the big leagues at a very young age, can prove to be a very large burden for a young player. Some live up to it, others never measure up and some, truth be told, are crushed under the weight.
The jury is still out over what path Travis Snider will take. The 2006 first-round pick made his Major League debut in '08 at age 20, and he then spent much of the next couple of years in and out of the Blue Jays' lineup, homering 14 times in 82 games in '10. When the Pirates sent Brad Lincoln to Toronto to get the outfielder at last summer's Trading Deadline, they were freeing him from a sort of post-prospect limbo in Triple-A.
Snider got the opportunity to show what he could do at the big league level again after the trade, once again flashing the promise that made him one of the better hitting prospects in the game. Snider hit .289/.368/.410 in August before going down with a hamstring injury. He never was quite right after that, hitting just .128 in September upon his return.
"We felt we gave up a substantial piece to get Travis," general manager Neal Huntington said. "A big part of it was we felt he could help our club last year, step right in. And he did, for about a month, then pulled his hamstring and arguably tried to come back from that too soon. We probably should've been more patient and given him some more time down, because it really took his legs out from under him. It took away his power and took away the ability to be the hitter we believe he can be."
The trade enabled Snider to wipe the slate clean from his up-and-down tenure in Toronto, and he came to his first Pirates camp healthy, in good shape and ready to show he belongs at the highest level, that his days of shuffling between Triple-A and the big leagues should be a thing of the past. Snider is still young -- he'll be 25 for the entire 2013 season -- but now is the time for him to prove if he can be the hitter some have believed he can be or if that burden is indeed too much.
The experience he had with Toronto, as the mercurial future star, may indeed serve him well in the future. He's played the part of the guy who listens to everyone and hears everything, one who let that burden alter who he is as a player. It could happen again. The Pirates, after all, traded a solid member of their bullpen to get Snider. Wanting to prove his new organization right could be the kind of thing that could once again weigh on Snider, but he appears to have the right "one game at a time" approach to dealing with it this time around.
"I don't think it's pressure in that sense," said Snider, who after his 0-for-2 with a walk performance against the Red Sox on Wednesday is hitting .313 this spring. "As athletes, we go out and compete. The second you start buying into that thought process of outside pressures is when you start to struggle. I've done that in my career. I know what that feels like, and that doesn't lead to success."
What does lead to success for Snider is when he uses the whole field and lets his natural strength and bat speed do its work, instead of trying to force the issue, especially to the pull side. He's always had a solid approach at the plate, a willingness to work counts and draw walks. It's one of the main reasons the Pirates wanted him.
"Our scouts still saw the ability to be a very good hitter, to use the whole field with authority, to grind out counts, which is something we made a conscious effort to try and acquire last summer," Huntington said. "We had too many quick innings, too many low pitch count at-bats from our offense in the last couple of years, and the three players we acquired -- Snider, Gaby Sanchez and this offseason, Russell Martin -- are all guys who grind out at-bats. We think it's going to help our offense overall."
What Snider hasn't always done is take advantage of his ability to work counts. Simply working into a hitter's count isn't enough. Being able to take advantage of those counts is what makes an up-and-coming hitter into a successful -- and established -- Major League contributor. It's another instance of not listening to talk about things like living up to power potential and continuing to grow as a hitter. As Huntington put it, it's about hitting a fastball hard and not "jumping" a fastball, the mindset that some young hitters have a tendency to fall into, a "I'm going to jump out and crush this fastball" approach that seldom works consistently.
"I'm focusing on consistent hard contact and driving the ball to all fields and utilizing the strength to all fields I possess when things are going right," Snider said. "And understanding what gets you in that mode to drive the baseball all over the field and not get caught up in hitting the home runs or trying to be that guy, instead of being a line-drive hitter and allowing the home runs to come. That's what I've done throughout my career when I've been successful.
"Yes, at times, there are times when you get big and you try to hit the long ball and things can break down in your swing, whether it's your timing or your target. Learning from those experiences and concentrating on my routine is important."
Snider is big on not looking back too much, though, be it at his trying to muscle up too frequently or at living up to expectations after his early arrival on the big league scene. Snider understands that experience is the best teacher, but he's trying hard to stop dwelling on things like whether him being rushed to Toronto damaged his development path.
"Aside from the learning experiences, those that can build me up as a player and as a person, I've really worked on cutting that out," Snider said. "Instead of trying to figure out what happened four years ago, I'm focusing on today and what I have to get done."