As soon as it became apparent that B.J. Upton would be leaving the Rays for a larger paycheck in free agency, it appeared as though Desmond Jennings would be the heir apparent in center. In fact, when Upton was injured to start the season, Jennings began the as the Rays center fielder. Overall, split between left and center in 2012, Jennings was perfect in the field, as he was a Gold Glove finalist for the year. Given his excellent defense over his career – he has committed exactly one error in his major league career, in his first game of 2011 – it is no surprise that he is reportedly taking well to being the primary center fielder for the Rays.
Helping the transition is the fact that Jennings came up originally as a center fielder, playing there exclusively until 2009. In the minors, Jennings also displayed his excellent glove work and range, with his defensive prowess helping to cement his status as one of the top prospects in baseball. In fact, Jennings himself feels that the transition is going well. “I feel good out there,” Jennings said. “Been just like I figured it would be.”
While Jennings has feels as though the transition is going well, there are still adjustments to be made. Even though he has traditionally taken solid routes to the ball, playing center is much different than either left or right. The ball looks different coming off the bat, and going back on a ball can be tricky. However, Jennings feels the mental side of the transition is more difficult.
“The hardest thing for me is to just know the hitters,” Jennings said. “[Are] you going to play him to pull or hit to the opposite field? I just have to get back to figuring out who hits the ball where and positioning myself where you think you should be. The toughest part is knowing the hitter. What kind of power does he have? Is he going to slap it?”
One of the hallmarks of the Rays recent run of success has been a typically excellent defense. Aside from their problems last season and finishing 21st in 2009, the Rays have been a top ten defense each year in their run of contention. It is felt that being strong up the middle of the diamond is one of the keys to an excellent defensive club, and with Jose Molina and Yunel Escobar, Jennings shifting to center may help the Rays recover from last season.
Should Jennings continue the excellent defense that he has displayed thus far in his major league career, he may be even better than Upton had been. Even though Upton has a stronger arm, he also finished in the top five for most errors committed in center in four of the past five years, and has been generally league average in range factor and fielding percentage. Jennings, meanwhile, has had an above average range factor in his limited time in center, and may improve upon that as he gets more comfortable there. In fact, Desmond Jennings may prove to be a defensive upgrade in center.