Oct 2, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings (8) runs out a 2 RBI double against the Cleveland Indians during the fourth inning in the American League wild card playoff game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Should Desmond Jennings Be Looking Over His Shoulder?

Desmond Jennings arrived in the major leagues July 23, 2011. Even though he went 8 for his first 18 (.444), the Tampa Bay Rays lost 4 of his first 5 games. But from then on, they went 38-20 (.655) to finish the season, topping the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. In his first 35 games, there was little Jennings could do wrong as he hit to a .351/.439/.634 line with 8 homers, 19 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. He ignited the Rays offense, revitalizing it just in time to go on a historic run. Jennings hit just .150 in his final 28 games, but he finished the season with one last spark of greatness, slamming 2 home runs in ALDS Game 3 against the Texas Rangers. After the way he faded, Jennings still had questions to answer, but he had tantalizing talent and the ability to be a mainstay in the Rays’ outfield for years to come. We saw a player who could do it all, showing power, speed, plate discipline, and excellent defense, and we expected big things. But the past two years, we can’t say that we have gotten them.

The past two years, Jennings has hit to a .249/.324/.401 line (103 OPS+) with an average of 25 doubles, 14 homers, and 26 stolen bases per season. We can’t say that he has been bad–but his inconsistency in all parts of his game has been puzzling. He’ll be a tap hitter for weeks and then go on a homer tear. He’ll steal 15 straight bases successfully then get picked off 3 times in five days. He’ll be flailing no matter what the opposing pitcher is throwing and then impress you with his plate discipline. The craziest thing of them all, however, was his defense. Everyone was confident that Jennings was a well above-average defensive centerfielder, then he proceeded to make a series of befuddling misplays. We thought the first one was an outlier, and after the second one, we thought we’d never see him make another error for a long time. But then it simply kept happening. Hopefully next season, Jennings can get back to being the defensive player we’re used to–but now every single flyball to center, every Rays fan will have a voice in the back of their head saying “it’s only a matter of time until he misses one again.”

At the end of the day, Desmond Jennings is still a solid major league centerfielder. Jennings has to get his defense back in order, but his power, speed, and ability to get on base put him squarely in the middle of his peers on the offensive side. Led by Jennings, Rays centerfielders ranked 15th in baseball in OPS+ in 2013, placing 9th in home runs, 10th in stolen bases, and 5th in walks. Jennings is an average major league regular, and while we hope he can be more, there is nothing wrong with what he has become. But it is only a matter of time until Jennings’ playing time starts to whittle away. The past two years, Jennings has managed an OPS under .700 against right-handed pitching. With the Rays having as much outfield depth as ever, how long is it until Joe Maddon starts benching him against tough right-handers? Most importantly, after years of having the Rays’ centerfield job all to himself, Jennings finally has a player primed to compete with him: Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier is an incredible defensive outfielder who enjoyed a breakout season at the plate in 2013. If Kiermaier keeps playing well while Jennings’ inconsistency persists, the Rays will not have any excuse to keep putting Jennings out there for long.

Desmond Jennings is 27 years old and 2014 will be a huge season for him. The Rays’ patience has run thin as they have waiting for Jennings’ game to come together and now he can’t take anything for granted. Plenty of top prospects turned out worse than Jennings and at worst, he is an average major league centerfielder. But with the Rays having World Series aspirations, if they see the opportunity for a change to improve their team, they will take it. If Kiermaier becomes a viable major league option at centerfield, the Rays will not hesitate to give him a chance.

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Tags: Desmond Jennings Tampa Bay Rays

  • James Horan

    Couldn’t agree more. HIs production against right handers needs to improve. Defensively i prefer him as a left fielder. He would make a great platoon for DeJesus if we had another option in center. Kiermaier or maybe even Guyer could steal the job away if they can produce offensively without the need to platoon. The Rays need a leadoff hitter but Jennings doesn’t seem to thrive there. He indeed should be looking over his shoulder. Embracing lead off (as in being productive), improving his base running (less pick offs and more success), and solidifying his defense should be spring training priorities. It is his job to have. He needs to grab it.

    • Robbie_Knopf

      It will be interesting to see what happens if Jennings’ defense continues to be inconsistent. With DeJesus in the fold, would the Rays consider moving Jennings back to left with DeJesus in center? I am also interested to see what Guyer does. He is certainly not a prospect anymore, but no one ever doubted his talent, only his ability to stay healthy.

    • George from Tarpon

      Does it matter that Jennings has just 4 in 335 career games? Just 4.

      • George from Tarpon

        Oh, and he didnt make a single error the entire 2012 season. ALL season .

        • Robbie_Knopf

          I do watch all the games, George, and viewing Jennings from an error standpoint is a waste of time. In 2012, he was outstanding. In 2013, he missed some catches and took some strange routes to balls. Some of them were called errors, some were not. All of them were mistakes that he can hopefully avoid next season.

  • George from Tarpon

    Desmond made 3 errors in 136 games–and has above average range. No Rays fan who actually goes to the games watched a flyball to centerfield and says “β€œit’s only a matter of time until he misses one again.” Rob–no offense–but please buy the MLB package and watch our games a little more if you cant actually make it to the park.

    • Steven Keaton

      errors mean nothing

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  • Steven Keaton

    I couldn’t care any less about defense. I’m tired of so many crappy hitters on this team. I want him to hit better this year or Im giving up on him