When a team is struggling, fans and management look for the struggling player and who might take their place. With the Rays, that might describe Kevin Kiermaier and Desmond Jennings. Jennings has struggled at the plate again this year and can’t seem to find a place in the batting order. Kiermaier, meanwhile, has moved from just another farmhand into one of the Rays’ top prospects. He is off to a good start at Durham, and has been impressive in the outfield and with the bat in a couple of cameo appearances with the Rays. However, before you think Kiermaier should replace Jennings, let’s take a look at how the Rays have handled struggling regulars in the past.
You have to go back to our old friend B.J. Upton to understand the Rays’ thinking on this issue. The Rays, and their fans, suffered through eight years of Upton trying to find himself. In his last three years with the Rays, he never hit .250, never drove in 85 or more runs and struck out an average of 165 times a year. He did average 23 home runs and 36 stolen bases. For all of this, the cash strapped Rays paid him $15.0 million. He left the team for Atlanta through free agency and has been a train wreck since he joined the Braves.
Desmond Jennings was his replacement in center field and we have seen more of the same from Jennings. So far in his career, Jennings has hit to a .249/.331/.408 line with an average of 12 homers and 25 stolen bases per 500 plate appearances. His numbers are below those figures so far in 2014. Like Upton, Jennings is a very talented, albeit occasionally erratic outfielder. To top it off, he makes the league minimum in terms of salary. As you can see, the Rays stick with this kind of player hoping that his great athletic ability will eventually translate into results. However, Jennings is eligible for arbitration next year and the salary base will jump into seven figures. Will they go the full three years of arbittration with Jennings as they did with Upton? We will have to wait and see.
On the other hand, we also don’t know quite what we have in Kiermaier. Prior to last year, he was just another outfielder in the minor league system. He burst on the scene in 2013 with great numbers at both Double-A and Triple-A. Nobody doubts his ability to play the outfield and his arm is outstanding, but who knows about his hitting at the major league level over an entire season. He’s a gap hitter without a lot of power. Given that, is he David DeJesus or Sam Fuld? Kiermaier is talented, but he is not about to supplant Jennings.
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to stick with Desmond Jennings and hope he breaks out. Kiermaier, meanwhile, will get his big league chances- like he’s about to get with Brandon Guyer injured- but not at Jennings’ expense. The good news for the Rays is that the two can coexist in their outfield, and we will have to see if they elect to do that next season.