So long, Ian Snell?
In a bizarre 24 hours for the Pirates' enigmatic starting pitcher, Snell approached management late Wednesday to request a demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis because of "too much negativity" in Pittsburgh about his performance, specifically from the fans, media and even independent bloggers. The team obliged yesterday by optioning him to the minors.
And just about all that is clear in the aftermath is this: Snell will not be back in Pittsburgh anytime soon.
If at all.
Although Snell initiated the move, management was supportive of the concept to the extent that, even if Snell fares exceptionally well in his first few starts for Indianapolis, he will not be recalled by the Pirates until they are full convinced he has matured on and off the mound.
And that, from the way yesterday played out, could take quite some doing.
"We will need to see real strides, no question," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.
"I have no idea what's next," Snell said. "All I know is I'm smiling right now. I'm happy. And I'm going to stay happy."
Flash back to Wednesday ...
Snell was fresh off a 2 2/3-inning loss to the Cleveland Indians the previous night -- one that left his record at 2-8, his ERA at 5.36 -- and was visibly disturbed by some of what he had read and heard about it, notably an unspecified comment made during the Pirates' television broadcast. Repeatedly, Snell mentioned the "negativity."
Later that night, he waited outside manager John Russell's office, knowing Huntington was inside, too. Russell and Huntington had met in the same office the previous night after Snell's loss, and he was the primary topic both times.
Perhaps wanting to initiate a move he knew was coming anyway, perhaps genuinely wanting out of Pittsburgh, Snell got his audience and made his case.
Huntington informed Snell yesterday, after he was at the ballpark and in uniform, that he was optioned to Indianapolis.
"It's one of those situations of who came to the conclusion first," Huntington said. "It's really not important. What is important is that we're going to try to help Ian Snell reach his potential because it is still in there. We still see glimpses. It's why he had remained in the big leagues. How we reach it, we're not quite sure just yet."
Snell's interview session with about a dozen media members was tense at times, loose at others...
Why seek a demotion?
"Too much negativity. I want to be a positive person if I'm going to be here. I felt like I was going to be negative if I was going to be here, and I didn't want to ruin this team. I wasn't going to allow them to say what they want. I told them I wanted to go down."
Why do this now, when three of his past four appearances had been quality starts?
"There's a lot. I don't want to point fingers and make excuses. I just made a better decision for myself, my career and my life."
What does he need to improve at Indianapolis?
"Nothing. You guys don't understand it unless you played baseball. You don't understand it, and the people at home don't understand it. I'm just going down there to get my thoughts together and do well."
The answers were pure Snell, with the perpetual chip on the shoulder accompanied, somewhat uncomfortably, by a warm child-like smile.
Little has come simply for Snell...
His parents split while he was young, and he claims to have spoken with his natural father once, by phone. His mother raised him, and it was in her honor that, while a prospect in the Pirates' system, he changed his name from Ian Oquendo -- the father's last name -- to Ian Snell.
He fell in love with Angelica Davila, now his wife, and accepted her father, Juan Davila, a Puerto Rican national, as his own father, always calling him "Dad." He played for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic this spring, applying because he made the case to tournament officials that Davila had raised him.
Davila's influence on Snell includes passing along to him many of the articles, from newspapers and blogs, with negative references about him. For a time, they seemed to help fuel Snell's success, especially 2007, his best season with a 3.76 ERA. Jeff Andrews, the Pirates' previous pitching coach, often would exchange playful insults with Snell as a way of motivating him.
In the past year, though, it appeared to swing the other direction.
"I can't let that stuff go," he said yesterday, away from the assembled media. "You don't know what it's like."
Snell, 27, has continued to show good stuff even as he put up poor numbers, from a 95-mph fastball to his favored slider. But his rate of first-pitch strikes had dropped to a low 53 percent, his 17.5 pitches per inning were highest of all starters in Major League Baseball and, most tangible, he walked 44 in 80 2/3 innings.
Snell is making $3.2 million this year and is guaranteed $4.25 million in 2010.
Trading him does not appear to be a possibility, even if such a scenario might best suit the team and player, as his market value --- especially considering the contract -- probably is low enough that he could clear waivers.
He will pitch out of Indianapolis' rotation, and the Pirates plan to provide him not only with a targeted coaching plan but also the counseling that is made available to all players. The team has a sports psychologist, Geoff Miller, on staff.
"Sometimes,a player can be his own worst enemy," Huntington said. "In this case, we have to find the right buttons to push to help Ian reach his potential."
That included, Huntington added, learning to block out the "negativity" when he does not perform well.
"The most successful players block it out. The ones that aren't able to, it wears on them. In Ian's case, for the better part of a year and a half now, he hasn't felt like he's been supported by the fans because he has struggled, and he has not been able to block that out. I think it will be a big step for Ian to make that jump."
Snell's first start for Indianapolis is expected to come Sunday at home against Toledo. If he stays with the Indians 20 days -- which he surely will -- it will use up his final option.