When the Orioles took the field for their 2015 regular-season opener April 6, there was a new face in right field for the first time in nearly a decade.
Gone was popular longtime Oriole Nick Markakis, who had started in right field every Opening Day from 2007-14 before signing with the Atlanta Braves Dec. 3, 2014. In his place was newcomer Travis Snider.
If Snider was nervous about filling the big shoes of Markakis, you wouldn't know it from his performance during the opener. Snider was an all-around star that afternoon, going 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs while making a diving catch and throwing out a runner at home plate.
Not a bad way to make a first impression.
Snider joined the Orioles Jan. 27 in a trade that sent minor league lefties Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Though only 27 years old, Snider came to the Orioles with seven years and 543 games of major league experience.
The Toronto Blue Jays made Snider their first-round draft pick (No. 14 overall) out of Henry M. Jackson High School in Washington during the 2006 amateur draft. He wasted no time tearing through the minor leagues, posting a .979 OPS in rookie league ball in 2006, then batting .313/.377/.525/.902 with 16 home runs and 93 RBIs during 118 games at Single-A Lansing in 2007.
Snider became one of baseball's most highly touted prospects. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him in their top 100 prospects lists for three consecutive years from 2007-09. In 2009, he placed No. 6 in Baseball America's rankings and No. 5 in Baseball Prospectus'. Still a teenager, Snider was an all-around offensive threat. In 2007 and 2008, he was rated both the best power hitter and the best hitter for average in the Blue Jays' system, according to Baseball America.
Snider's accelerated rise through the Blue Jays' system rocketed him through three minor league levels in 2008, capped by his first call-up to the major leagues on Aug. 29 of that year. He was 20 years old. Snider came out swinging, batting .301/.338/.466/.803 during 24 games.
For the next four years, though, the Blue Jays didn't seem to know what to do with Snider, continually bouncing him between the majors and minors. The same pattern repeated itself over and over: Snider would win a spot as an everyday starter to begin the season, only to get demoted to the minors after early struggles.
Snider started 2009 as the Blue Jays' primary left fielder against right-handed pitchers, but after posting a well-below average .686 OPS during 32 games, he was banished to the minors for three months. The following season, Toronto gave Snider another crack at a starting spot in the outfield, but he batted .155 in April and was sent back to the minors in mid-May. Given another starting opportunity to open 2011, Snider hit .184 in April and returned to Triple-A Las Vegas for more seasoning. Snider was limited to 49 games in the majors that year.
Snider hadn't developed as the middle-of-the-order slugger the Blue Jays expected, and their patience ran out. He didn't crack the Opening Day roster in 2012, and on July 30, Toronto traded him to the Pirates for right-handed reliever Brad Lincoln. Once considered a future part of the Blue Jays' core, Snider's career in Toronto was finished, his potential unfulfilled.
But at 24 years old, Snider had a lot of baseball left in him. And he found a much more comfortable home in Pittsburgh.
With the Pirates, Snider served as a part-time outfielder and a pinch-hitting weapon off the bench. His constant rides on the minor league shuttle became a thing of the past. And after spending five years on non-contending Blue Jays teams, Snider experienced October baseball for the first time, making the postseason in both 2013 and 2014 on wild card-winning Pirates clubs.
Snider became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, not only for his quirky personality -- he was given the nickname "Lunchbox Hero" for his love of food -- but also because of his knack for delivering a big hit. In 2014, he posted an .821 OPS with runners in scoring position, collecting 25 RBIs in 72 at bats. He also tied for fifth in the majors with 13 pinch hits.
But with the Pirates unable to give Snider a starting spot in their young, homegrown outfield, they shipped him to the Orioles. The deal was a bittersweet one for Snider, taking him away from the team that revitalized his career, but bringing him to a club that could give him a better chance for everyday at bats.
"[It's] a new opportunity," Snider said. "It was a lot of fun in Pittsburgh, playing in the playoffs, getting that experience. But being here, understanding you're in a highly competitive division in the American League, and [having] the opportunity to continue the winning ways [and] to be on a winner, that's what it's all about."
The O's had a number of reasons to think 2015 could be a breakout season for Snider. At 27, he's at an age when many players reach their prime, and in 2014, he hit the ball with more authority than usual. He had his highest line-drive rate (19.4 percent) and lowest ground-ball rate (49.4 percent) since 2010. He also showed the potential for a power surge, hitting his fly balls an average 302 feet in 2014, a 29-foot improvement from his 2013 average. The right-field flag court at Oriole Park at Camden Yards could prove to be an enticing target for the lefty-swinging Snider.
In addition, Snider brings a solid batting eye to the Birds. He tied his career-high .338 OBP last year, which would've ranked third on the 2014 Orioles, four points below Markakis. Snider's disciplined plate approach could help an O's lineup that has been full of free swingers during recent years.
"It's a matter of getting a good pitch to hit and being ready when that pitch comes," Snider said. "And if they're not going to give it to me, I'm going to try not to swing at it."
All in all, the O's think Snider could give them similar production to Markakis at a fraction of the cost. Markakis' free-agent deal with the Braves will pay him $44 million for the next four years. Snider, by contrast, is making $2.1 million in 2015 and has two years of arbitration remaining.
So far in 2015, Snider has made himself at home with the Orioles, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
"It's a great group of guys who come here to have fun and play hard," Snider said. "And the more we win, the better we'll be."
Snider's career has run the gamut so far -- from a top prospect to an organizational shuttle guy to a role player and possibly back to an everyday starter. Along the way, he's picked up valuable experience he hopes will help him find a long-term home in Baltimore.
"I've kind of experienced the ups and downs that this game has to bring," Snider said. "And going into my eighth season, it's something that allows me to stay focused in the present and do what I've got to do to get better every day."