Jun 11, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings (8) hits a 2-RBI single during the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Will Desmond Jennings Ever Take The Next Step?

After being drafted in the 10th round of the 2006 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, Desmond Jennings continually excited Rays fans. He worked his way up through the system, hitting well the entire way and also gaining a reputation as a strong defender and a potent base stealer. Everything seemed to be coming together for Jennings in 2011, when he hit .259/.356/.449 with 10 homers and 20 steals in 63 games in his first extended big league action. Rays fans were excited about Jennings’ potential, but since then he hasn’t been the player everyone thought he could become. Will Jennings ever take that next step?

2012 was Jennings first full big league season, and there were some positives and negatives. On the plus side, he stole 31 bases in 33 attempts and played tremendous defense in left field. On a more sour note, his bat took a step back to a .246/.314/.388 (.702 OPS) line and he struck out 120 times in 132 games. Jennings entered 2013 hoping to show who he truly was, and once again there were some good takeaways and some bad ones. His bat would improve to a .252/.334/.414 (.748 OPS) line, and while that wasn’t up to the potential that he had shown in 2011, it was a start. However, his base stealing would take a hit, as he went just 20-28 in stolen base attempts, and he also was not great defensively upon moving to center field. Thus, Jennings came into 2014 as a 27-year old who had still yet to show who he was. This year, he has only continued to confuse us on what kind of player he is. His .242/.327/.375 (.702 OPS) line is still disappointing, and he has gone only an o.k. 12-15 in stolen base attempts, though he is playing better defense than last year.

The biggest question with Jennings remains his bat. In the minors, he showed good contact abilities, a great plate approach, and nice power. But in the big leagues, he has been underwhelming in all three categories. His numbers haven’t been terrible, but everyone thought he could be more than he’s been. The biggest issue in the big leagues has been his plate approach. After walking almost as much as he struck out in the minors, he is striking out in 20.2% of his big league plate appearances while walking only 9.8% of the time. The poor plate approach is hurting his contact and power, and it needs to improve. The problem is that at 27-years old he is right in the middle of his prime years. If he isn’t going to be able to adjust now, will he be able to adjust once he is out of his prime? That remains to be seen, but something is going to have to change quickly for Jennings if he wants to reach the offensive potential he once showed.

Defensively and on the basepaths, he should end up being fine. The defensive problems he showed in centerfield were likely more because of an adjustment period from being a left fielder than anything else. On the basepaths, the Rays have changed up their philosophy in recent years and have not been as aggressive. Jennings has been more efficient this year than he was in 2013, and given his outstanding speed he will be fine moving forward.

All-in-all, Jennings is a decent centerfielder, but he has yet to reach the All-Star potential that he once had. It all comes down to his bat, and specifically his plate approach, and his ability to take that next step depends on that. If he cannot make the adjustment, he may soon find himself out of favor in the Rays outfield. David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, Wil Myers, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, and Mikie Mahtook are all going to be a part of the Rays outfield group in the near future, and if Jennings can’t improve then he could eventually find himself lost in the fold.

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  • TheRealRyan

    Maybe we had hoped for a superstar out of Jennings, but he still has been very good. He is an average defender at a premium position with excellent baserunning and an above average bat. That is a very valuable player and for his career he has averaged 3.5 WAR/season and 3.8 WAR/150.

    Since 2011, Jennings has been worth 10.4 fWAR and 10.6 rWAR in only 400 games. This is good for 61st in all of MLB over that time period. Some of the players with less WAR, despite playing in more games than Jennings are Pujols, Zimmerman, Crisp, Choo, Bruce, Freeman, Kipnis and Chris Davis among many other good to great players. This season Jennings is on pace for 3.9-4.8 WAR. Last season there were only 38 players in MLB with more than 3.9 fWAR.

    While Desmond hasn’t become a perennial MVP like Andrew McCutchen, we shouldn’t let our unrealistic expectations get in the way of us enjoying one of the top 50 players in baseball.

    • Drew Jenkins

      First off WAR is not the end-all-be-all of statistics, and too me isn’t a great valuation of a player. That being said, I agree Jennings is a valuable player. He just hasn’t taken the next step that everyone thought he would. He’s valuable, but the Rays have plenty of other outfield talent just as good, if not better than him, and if he can’t improve soon he’ll become expendable.

      • TheRealRyan

        I’m curious to hear why you think WAR is not a good way to value a player, but I agree that it isn’t the end all of stats. I chose WAR because it does attempt to assign value to all aspects of a players game. When you have a player like Jennings who gets a lot of his value from baserunning and defense, it helps to show how good of an overall player Jennings is compared to average.

        Looking at the stats you like better still show a very good player. You concede his baserunning and defense to be pluses, but point to the bat as the problem. However you point to his BB% as a negative and that is flat out wrong. His BB% is 10.0 this year, 10.6 last year and 9.7 for his career. League average is 8.0. Jennings is currently 48th in MLB in BB% this year and his K% is right about league average. Once you adjust for ballparks, his career OPS has also been above average.

        I think there is a chance Jennings gets traded sometime in the near future. If that happens the reason would be Friedman gets an offer he can’t refuse, not because he isn’t a good enough player to cut it. The idea that he is expendable because we have better in-house options is completely laughable. Will Myers and maybe Kiermaier are the only OFs in our org that have more value.

        • Drew Jenkins

          As far as WAR, to me it is simply too speculative. Like you said it accounts for things like base running and defense, which is good, but putting one number on a player is impossible and it causes some players to be ranked too high and some too low.

          As far as Jennings walk/ strikeout rates, I wasn’t as much arguing they were bad as I was arguing that they weren’t on par with what they were in the minors. That has hurt his overall numbers in the transition to the big leagues. Yes he is a slightly above-average hitter, but he hasn’t been what the Rays thought he would be, which was the point of this article.

          Also, Kevin Kiermaier plays better defense than Jennings, and so far has hit much better. Whether the hitting keeps up remains to be seen, but having him around makes Jennings expendable. Mahtook has finally taken the next step as a prospect, and he is pushing for big league time. Basically the Rays outfield is stacked and will be for years to come. Jennings could be a part of those years to come- but at the same time the Rays could very well elect to trade him and still have a very good outfield.

          • Ryan

            Another very important thing to think about regarding Jennings’s expendability is that he is just going into his arbitration years, and his agent is Scott Boras, so those years are not going to be cheap.

          • Drew Jenkins

            Very valid point

  • therza82

    Seems like the entire Rays team is struggling offensively this year, including their best hitters in Longo and Zobrist, proven veterans like Loney, Joyce, and the two guys that the Rays were hoping would take big steps forward this year in Myers and Jennings.