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This is turning into the spring in which Travis Snider became a bona fide professional athlete - just by becoming average in something.

Spring statistics are the game's junk e-mail, but in Snider's case, the Toronto Blue Jays are quietly satisfied with one particular number: 4.2 seconds. That is the time to first base they have registered for their formerly chunky outfield prospect. It is pretty much the major-league average and is two-tenths faster than last spring. Snider has also taken smarter routes in the outfield and appears to have reacquainted himself with the usefulness of knowing the identity of the cut-off man.

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"Physically and mentally, I feel like I've put myself in the best position possible, knowing I was competing for a job," Snider said yesterday. "I'm trying to open their eyes. Not just as a hitter, but as a professional."

This is the time when, in the words of Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "a long spring becomes a short spring."

Leyland watched Dontrelle Willis pitch four solid innings in a 5-1 win over the Blue Jays yesterday and then prepared to go to a night game in Viera, where Jeremy Bonderman pitched against the Washington Nationals. Those two pitchers and Nate Robertson are vying for two spots.

"Two of the most important games we've played so far," Leyland said, speaking as he stabbed and sawed his way through a brisket of beef with a frightening pace before firing up a Marlboro. "Big day."

It was the first start of the Grapefruit League season for Blue Jays third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who had surgery on the hamate bone in his left wrist, played in the minors Wednesday, and talked himself onto the bus. He says he needs 30 at-bats to be ready for opening day, and after going 1-for-2 with a walk and having no pain, he will likely be given that chance as manager Cito Gaston increases the daily workload of his everyday players beginning tomorrow.

A healthy Encarnacion means that Jose Bautista stays in right field, which, assuming Adam Lind is the designated hitter, would leave left field for Snider, who has split 14 games between the corner outfield positions. Gaston still uses an "if" when he discusses Snider's chances, but the 14th player chosen overall in the 2006 draft is a different cat than the guy who hit .241 with nine home runs and 29 runs batted in last year, when he chafed under Gaston and erstwhile hitting coach Gene Tenace. Snider is noticeably leaner and quicker than last year.

Gaston has been criticized in the past for having a not always deft hand with young hitters, but that's a too easy generalization. Snider, who knocks on rhetorical wood when he says he thinks he's found "a path to the ball that feels natural ... very comfortable," admits that much of whatever happened in 2009 was due to "stuff I'd misconstrued in my mind."

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Gaston knows there are pressures on prospects like Snider, but he is quick to add there's also benefits and extra chances. Even though his playing career predates big money, Gaston remembers taking out a catcher in an intrasquad game among Atlanta Braves minor-leaguers, cutting the catcher's ankle.

"They all rushed out to pick me up and make sure I was okay and they just looked at the poor guy who was bleeding and said: 'You, go see the trainer.' That's when I knew I was a prospect. That opened my eyes. I was: 'Ah-hah, so that's how it works.' "

There is still a day-to-day, punch-the-clock element to this game that must be given its due. Like a game, a career also has its own pace, and Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said yesterday that Snider's long-term future as a left or right fielder depends on free agency or trades.

Snider has, in Anthopoulos's words, looked "outstanding defensively," and his defence has opened the eyes of scouts in the Grapefruit League, many of whom likely weren't surprised at the 13 errors he committed in 2009. Asked to compare Lind and Snider defensively, Gaston paused and said: "Well, we played defence for Lind last year."

It's all relative, but it says a great deal that Snider's defence could be mentioned as a plus in any conversation.

"I don't think the scouts were far off in what they were saying back then," Snider said, chuckling. "I mean, 13 errors in the outfield? Nobody's going to sit there and call you an average-to-plus outfielder when you're doing that. But I've always felt I can be an average-to-plus outfielder. It wasn't going to happen overnight. But it's there."

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