April 3, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings (8) runs out a single during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Is Desmond Jennings the Most Important Piece in the Rays Lineup?

It is easy to look at the Tampa Bay Rays offense and come to the conclusion that Evan Longoria is the key to their lineup. As the only true power bat presently in the lineup, the Rays ability to score runs is seemingly dependent upon his health. In fact, the Rays averaged just over 3.2 runs per game without Longoria’s presence in the lineup. Yet, for Longoria’s value to be maximized, he needs people on base in front of him. He can certainly generate offense; however, he is not likely to manufacture a run virtually on his own.

As such, it is vital that the players hitting in front of Longoria get on base. That is doubly the case with Desmond Jennings, whose speed provides another element to the offense. His career 84.8% success rate on stealing bases means that opposing pitchers must pay attention to him, instead of focusing all of their attention upon that hitter.

For Jennings to be truly dangerous, he needs to get on base more frequently than he did last season. After posting a .356 on base percentage in 2011, he only got on base at a .314 clip last season. Therefore, the Rays and Jennings made it a focus for him to get on base more, to work the count and take more walks. Jennings’ change in approach was noticeable from the outset, as he was second on the team in walks during Spring Training, and had the second highest on base percentage of any player with more than two at bats.

Thus far, this approach has carried over into the regular season. Although the Rays have only played in seven games, Jennings is getting on base at a .345 rate, with five walks. His presence on base gives the Rays offense another dimension, where they can manufacture a run, even should they not manage to get a hit. A case in point occurred on Saturday, when Jennings led off the bottom of the third by drawing a walk. He then stole second and third, and attempted to score on a ground ball to third. Even though he was thrown out at the plate, Jennings almost managed to create a run virtually on his own.

When Jennings gets is taking walks and working the count, the Rays offense has a different feel. There is a quick strike element, where a walk can potentially turn into a runner on second or third within the span of a couple of pitches. Should he continue to improve his plate discipline, he may be primed for a breakout season, perhaps a 20 home run/45+ stolen base campaign.

While Evan Longoria may be the best hitter in the lineup, Desmond Jennings may be the most important player in the batting order. His ability to get on base changes the dynamic of the offense, which may be the key to the season. With a top pitching staff and excellent defense, the Rays likely need their offense to be roughly average to look towards pushing for a playoff berth. Jennings may be the key to how the offense fares throughout the season.

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