July 28, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Desmond Jennings (8) is congratualted after scoring a run in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Rays Banking on Desmond Jennings At His Finest

When Desmond Jennings came to the Rays in late July of 2011, he exhilarated the team with his explosive power-speed combination. In July of 2011, the Rays went just 11-15. In August, Jennings’ first full month with the team, they went 18-10. And Jennings was playing like a star. In his first 37 MLB games and 167 plate appearances between late July and August, he posted a .333/.427/.603 line with 8 homers, 20 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. But then in September, even as the Rays went on their miraculous run to make the postseason, Jennings came apart, posting just a .160/.258/.245 line with just 2 homers, 5 RBI, and 6 stolen bases. Overall, there was more good than bad for Jennings. He posted a .259/.356/.449 line, a 128 OPS+, with 10 homers and 20 steals in 63 games. He also hit .333 with 2 homers in the ALDS against the Rangers, walking 3 times while striking out just once. The Rays believed that Jennings could be a formidable leadoff man for them in 2012. That became even more important when B.J. Upton and Sam Fuld went down in spring training.

Jennings was playing pretty well to begin the season, posting a .273/.336/.409 line with 3 homers and 7 stolen bases through 27 games, but then he injured his knee sliding into home and later went on the disabled list. But after returning from the disabled list in June, Jennings struggled mightily in his first 2 months back, managing just a .217/.282/.333 line with 4 homers and 11 stolen bases in 50 games. He was removed from the leadoff spot for a while as the Rays tried to find some way to get him on track. But finally in August he has started to get his season together, as he has upped his line to .278/.352/.468 with 2 homers and 4 stolen bases in 20 June games. Still, on the season he has managed just a .244/.311/.387 line with 17 doubles, 10 homers, 38 RBI, 23 of 25 stolen bases, and 88 strikeouts versus 34 walks in 102 games and 429 plate appearances. His OPS+ has been just 97, 3% below average. He has played well at times but he has never shown the type of ability that he did early on in 2011. He has stolen some bases, hit for a little power, and played good defense, but he hasn’t been anything special. Jennings is a player who drew Carl Crawford comparisons for a while, and we’re talking about Crawford when he was a superstar for the Rays. He hasn’t been anything close to that this season.

The Rays have a lot invested in Desmond Jennings. Jennings has been one of the Rays’ starting outfielders for most of 2012. But in 2013, his role will become more pivotal as B.J. Upton leaves Tampa Bay as a free agent and Jennings will take over for Upton in centerfield. Upton is a player who has never lived up to expectations as a member of the Rays, but he has been a consistent producer in the stolen base and even home run departments. Can Jennings be that player? The Rays dream of Jennings as a player who is a threat to hit close to .300 with a good OBP, 25 home runs, and 40 stolen bases. He isn’t there yet. Will he ever get there? In order to continue to contend even as players leave as free agents, the Rays are depending on their prospects and their young players taking the next steps in their development. The Rays aren’t buying a lottery ticket here in Jennings. They believe that he has a chance to be a special player someday. It’s up to Jennings to validate the Rays’ trust in him.

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