DUNEDIN — Spring training batting practice causes few to blink twice. But when Blue Jays outfield prospect Travis Snider is at the plate, even manager Cito Gaston gets excited.
The left-handed slugging outfielder has hit homers that, some say, haven't landed yet.
"When you think of Travis," veteran third baseman Scott Rolen said, "power is the first thing that comes to your mind."
But it's Snider's mind — his mental makeup and toughness — along with his muscle that has the Jays believing the time could be now for the 21-year-old who was drafted 11 spots (14th overall) after Rays All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria in 2006.
"I really think this kid is going to make this team," Gaston said. "He really has to do bad not to make this team because we're building toward the future. I'm just anxious to see how good he really is. I get excited when he's up there — a great kid, plays hard, he has his head in the right place."
Snider, who made his major-league debut in August, has been a prized prospect ever since his days growing up near Everett, Wash., where he drew comparisons from his high school coach to Indians All-Star centerfielder Grady Sizemore, who also lived and played nearby.
Jackson High coach Kirk Nicholson, who worked with both Sizemore and Snider, once told Baseball America: "Grady had a little bit better contact than Travis. But Travis has a little more pop."
Snider, who at 6 feet, 235 pounds is built like the linebacker and fullback he used to be in high school, has been known for his toughness. But Snider had to find strength through adversity in a difficult three-year stretch. After he lost two grandparents with whom he was close, his mother, Patty, died in a car accident in 2007, Snider's first full year of pro baseball.
"Without a doubt, he's probably tougher mentally than the average bear," Jays bench coach Brian Butterfield said. "I know he's been through a lot in his lifetime. For a young man to endure something like that, it's unfortunate. But on the flip side, he's probably grown up a lot quicker than guys that even signed out of college."
Butterfield said that Snider is ahead of the curve in terms of maturity, citing the "veteran answers" he gives in response to questions related to defense and baserunning. Snider, who is earning respect from the veterans for his work ethic and preparation, has remained grounded throughout the hype, his life giving him a healthy dose of perspective.
"Obviously I was fortunate to be blessed in the situation I've been given," said Snider, who had a $1.7 million signing bonus in 2006. "At the same time, you've got to go out there and play the same way the 50th-rounder does. For me it's just coming out there and handling my business."
Snider has slimmed down since last season, when he hit .301 with two homers in 73 big-league at bats. Though he combined for 25 homers in 2008 while playing at all three minor-league levels and the majors, he also struck out 177 times.
Snider said he always dreamed of having the kind of impact as the Seattle stars he watched growing up — Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, to name a few — and "hopefully, we can go ahead and take that next step forward."
And though Butterfield said Snider still has a lot to learn, and he is wary of making lofty predictions, it could be only a matter of time before Snider makes a splash at the next level.
Said Butterfield: "I think (Snider is) going to be a guy that, just because of his personality, will be able to carry the torch in this organization in short order."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]m.