When B.J. Upton departed Tampa Bay to join the Atlanta Braves this offseason, the Rays weren’t too concerned. After all, they had Desmond Jennings to replace him, and Jennings had a chance to be even better. Coming up through the Rays’ system, Jennings had always been compared to not the enigmatic Upton but to a player who had truly blossomed into a superstar for the Rays, Carl Crawford. Both were athletic 6’2″ outfielders, and while Jennings did lag slightly behind Crawford in foot speed and bat speed, he made up for it by being as good or better than Crawford in just about everything. Jennings was a plus defensive centerfielder while Crawford was stuck in left field, and he had significantly more power. Jennings was coming off a tough 2012 as he dealt with knee problems, but with his abilities, Rays fans were expecting him to break out in his second full year in the big leagues. Instead, Jennings’ up-and-down year has left everyone wondering where he goes from here.
Jennings was not playing well to begin the season, managing just a .232/.291/.395 line in his first 45 games and 204 plate appearances. Then Joe Maddon moved him from the leadoff spot to lower down in the order, and everything started to click. In Jennings’ next 47 games and 205 PA’s he put up a .311/.387/.511 line, playing like everything the Rays dreamed he would be. The most staggering difference between theose two runs was not Jennings’ power or stolen base proficiency but his plate discipline: Jennings went from to just a 47-16 mark in the first stretch to a crazy 27-21 in the latter. Somehow he had morphed into a completely different player. Since then, however, Jennings has been entirely dreadful. He had managed just a .165/.287/.240 line in 144 PA’s, and while his strikeout to walk ratio has been decent at 35-21, he has hit just 3 doubles and 2 home runs. When everything is working, Jennings has power and speed and can do everything. But when he’s off, it can take him a while to get back. That has especially been true of his defense. Everyone knew Desmond Jennings as a great defender in centerfield, but recently he has made a string of errors and a series of misplays that may not have been scored errors but were balls he usually catches. He made a couple mistakes and everything fell apart from there. And the more we talk about this, the more Jennings sounds like B.J. Upton. He flashes all five tools as a centerfielder, but he simply can’t put together on a consistent enough basis to become the superstar he has the talent to be. His plate discipline comes and goes and even his defense can go from superb to spotty in the blink of an eye. B.J. Upton was the Rays’ starting centerfielder for six years. If Jennings does that, the Rays will be happy. But watching such a talented player become so enigmatic got so tiring with Upton and the same will hold true of Jennings if he doesn’t find a way to change course. Becoming the next B.J. Upton is far from Desmond Jennings’ worst-case scenario. If that is what happens, though, Jennings will depart from Tampa Bay with the Rays fans thinking the exact same thing that they were thinking this past offseason: he always had the talent, but he just could never put it together.