Orioles Do Something, Add Lottery Ticket in Travis Snider

It’s been a frustrating offseason for Baltimore fans, he says to people who already know just how little the Orioles have done. Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller, and Nick Hundley have all left town. The entirety of the work the team has done to replace them was to bring back Delmon Young and import reliever Wesley Wright. While you can’t draw a straight line between the team’s inactivity and the ongoing “is Dan Duquette leaving for Toronto” saga, it’s easy to see how some may look to see a relationship there.

Trading for Travis Snider, as the O’s did on Tuesday night, won’t change that. But that we’re talking about him says a little bit about what the Baltimore offseason has come to, a lot about the state of baseball news on January 28th, and something about a player that the Orioles clearly hope can become their next scrapheap pickup to yield results on a team that’s making something of a habit out of confounding the expectations.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this, really: Snider’s major league career has been a bust, at least so far as the expectations go for being the 14th overall pick in the 2006 draft. It’s fair to wonder what might have been had the Blue Jays let him get more than 18 Triple-A games before promoting him to the big leagues as a 20-year-old in 2008, despite the fact that he’d struck out 27.4% of the time in 423 Double-A plate appearances prior to that. Still, he was rated as a top-6 overall prospect by both BA and BP headed into 2009… and never quite stuck.

Snider spent most of his Toronto tenure bouncing between the bigs and the farm, dealing with wrist injuries, never receiving more than 319 plate appearances for the Jays and spending at least 25 games in the minors every year before being dealt to Pittsburgh late in 2012 for another failed first-rounder, pitcher Brad Lincoln. His first full year as a Pirate was a replacement-level disaster as he tried to play through a foot injury that would later require surgery; his second was a surprising 121 wRC+ success that included a second half where he hit as well as Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera and Michael Brantley.

It should go without saying, yet will be said here anyway, that two good months don’t outweigh years of disappointment. You could become very wealthy simply betting against “but he had a good second half” outliers. It’s possible, probable even, that we’ll look back on this and wondered why we even bothered thinking about Snider, although in that case I suppose we won’t be looking back upon it at all. But Snider, despite all his failures, remains fascinating, if only because of that long-ago prospect shine, but also because there’s still some things to like about him. It’s been a long time since Snider was that top prospect, but sometimes it takes time to work things out. It’s just that for Snider, not enough of that time was spent quietly failing, in the minors.

Start with this: He’s still only turning 27 next month, and despite the disappointments, he’s been basically a league-average hitter over the last three seasons, cutting his whiff rate by eight percent last year. His batted ball distance jump in 2014 was the third-biggest of anyone in baseball, all the way up to No. 8 overall, and No.1 overall if you’re looking only at lefty hitters. (Yasmani Grandal is a switch-hitter.) The non-Coors guys in front of him? Paul Goldschmidt, George Springer, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Abreu, and Cabrera. It’s impressive company. His peripherals offer hope: He struck out less, walked more. He’s been swinging less overall, and making contact more.

Even before you factor in ballparks — and we will in a second — the projections look upon him favorably. Steamer has him down for a 108 wRC+, and while it might seem much for a “first-round bust” to be seen as an above-average hitter, well, remember that’s actually down from the 121 from last year that wasn’t even a BABIP mirage. There’s also this, and sorry, Braves fans: You might not like what Steamer/600 has to say.

Snider 600 27 2 18 53 124 .253 .322 .412 .734 .323 108 0 -2.3 5.4 -11.2 1.3
 Markakis 600 26 1 11 51 75 .266 .333 .379 .712 .317 101 -0.8 -2.4 0.2 -8.9 1

Is that crazy? It seems, I admit, crazy. After all, Markakis is a veteran who just got a four-year deal worth $44 million; Snider is a part-time player who just got Baltimore’s No. 9 prospect and a player to be named. We’ve been over the Markakis vs. defensive metrics issue more than once here before, and so I’m not going to rehash it here. Either you believe in defensive metrics or you don’t; we can probably agree at the very least that Markakis is the superior defender by some margin.

But even if we keep it just to offense, well, Snider was the better hitter last year. He’s been the better hitter over the last two years. That’s on a rate basis, obviously, because Markakis played far more, but Snider is also more than four years younger and not coming off major neck surgery. The fact that Snider is almost certainly going to strike out more often is going to be used as a point against him, and while I’m not going to pretend it’s a good thing, we know that “overall production” is more important than “strikes out less.”

There is the ballpark issue to add in here, anyway. Snider is a pull hitter who was playing in a Pittsburgh ballpark that, by our metrics, was brutal on lefty power, finishing above only six other parks. He’s going to a park in Baltimore that was considered more favorable to lefties than anywhere other than Coors Field and Yankee Stadium. Here’s an ESPN article from before 2014 that indicated that while the HR/FB to right in Baltimore was 15.6%, it was only 9.4% in Pittsburgh.

Of course, the Markakis comparison above is using Steamer/600, which is based on 600 plate appearances. That’s not going to happen for Snider. Prior to the trade, the Orioles outfield/DH situation looked something like this:

LF: Alejandro De Aza / David Lough
CF: Adam Jones
RF: Lough / Steve Pearce
DH: Young / Pearce / Chris Davis

So now there’s flexibility, though adding a lefty swinger to the De Aza / Lough mix is a little awkward. Maybe Snider platoons with Pearce in right, pushing Lough to the defensive replacement role he’s probably best suited for. Maybe he takes plate appearances from De Aza in left, pushing him to the backup role he’s best suited for. Maybe he platoons with Young at DH. Maybe Davis’ 2014 disaster extends into 2015, and Pearce is playing a lot more first than right. There’s time enough to sort all this out. Other than Jones, this was not an impenetrable group.

It’s not like the Pirates got taken here, anyway. With McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, they’re more than covered in the outfield, and they have enough backups in Corey Hart, Jose Tabata, and Andrew Lambo. That they’re sending Snider out says something, though it might be nothing more than shaving a few million dollars of payroll by trading from a position of strength to add some pitching prospect depth. Even if that’s all it is, they turned nothing into something, getting a few good months out of Snider and then turning that into talent.

This isn’t going to turn the Orioles offseason around single-handedly. It might not even have been a better use of a roster spot than ponying up a few million more to get Colby Rasmus, though the fact that Rasmus can play center matters less on a team with Jones. It might, however, be the latest entry in the team wringing value out of basically free discarded outfielders. It worked with Nate McLouth in 2013. It worked with Pearce in 2014. It may or may not work with Snider in 2015, but it’s absolutely worth trying.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Jonathan Loring
7 years ago

Cody Ross is on the Pirates?