Spring Training is officially underway. Many Pitchers reported to Port Charlotte early but Tuesday marked the official day for all Pitchers and Catchers to report. The teams’ first workout was Wednesday at 10 a.m.. Position players do not need to report until Sunday, February 20 with full-team workouts scheduled to begin the next day.
The new-look Rays will be exciting to watch, as always, but there are many questions for the defending AL East champs. As we head into the spring season here is one that is on the minds of everyone…
Will Desmond Jennings make the Opening Day roster?
Jennings looks like the fourth outfielder behind newly acquired Johnny Damon, BJ Upton, and Ben Zobrist. Jennings has been dubbed as the “next Carl Crawford” by many in the media, so of course he’ll make the roster, right? Not so fast. Looking back at his numbers after his September call-up, Jennings showed a glaring weakness to hit for average. Granted the sample size was small and there is always a learning curve, however the problem I have is with a more detailed statistic (thanks to the guys at FanGraphs).
Full Graph: Fan Graph-Desmond Jennings
The speedy Jennings had a FB% (fly ball percentage) of over 41%. Again, sample size, but if you look at the type of player that Jennings is, he needs to work on his FB%. He needs to lower the number of fly balls that he hits, thus allowing him to use his speed to get on base. Let’s look at the obvious comparison, Carl Crawford. In 2010 Crawford had a FB% of 36%. This was his highest FB% of his career. His career average of 31% is a more telling example of the difference in the two. Crawford was able to get away with the hike in FB% simply because he also had career highs in SLG%, HR’s, and RBI’s. At the age of 28, Crawford had already started to show a more powerful side. The increase in HR’s and RBI’s was not a huge shock.
Full Graph: Fan Graphs-Carl Crawford
If Desmond Jennings wants to make this club out of Spring Training he needs to focus mightily on his FB%. With the ability to turn a walk into a double, Jennings should lower his percentage down to the 30%-35% range (at worst). Ichiro Suzuki, who many feel is the best when it comes to getting on base, has a career FB% of 24%.
Full Graph: FanGraphs-Ichiro Suzuki
I am one of the few who believe that Jennings will make the Opening Day roster but the kid must show some focus at the plate and use what he has to manufacture success. As a rookie it is all about proving yourself and showing where you are of value to the team. Jennings’ biggest “value” to the Rays is his speed.
The other factor is directly linked to Zobrist. Will Joe Maddon stick with Zobrist in left field? Desmond Jennings is clearly an “outfielder of the future” in Tampa despite the fact that he may start in Triple-A Durham. Damon and Upton are a lock for left field and center field, respectively. The right field position is a bit more variable. You know Maddon loves to have options, and boy does he have a bunch here. Take a look at some of these scenarios…
Zobrist in RF, Sean Rodriguez at 2B, Dan Johnson at 1B
Matt Joyce in RF, Zobrist at 2B, and Johnson at 1B
Jennings in RF, Rodriguez at 2B, and Zobrist at 1B
If Maddon plans on using Zobrist as his everyday man in RF, I expect Jennings to start in Triple-A, while Joyce comes off of the bench as the fourth outfielder. If Zobrist is going to spend most of his time as an infielder (1B and 2B), I expect Jennings to make the roster and start every three-out-of-five games. In my opinion, the Rays production at first and second base is far more uncertain than in the outfield. What I mean by this is that the loss of projected starters Rodriguez (at 2B) and/or Johnson (at 1B) are easier to replace. The Rays can simply slide Zobrist in at either position and rely on solid contributions night-in and night-out. Johnson and Rodriguez are both less of an everyday player than Zobrist is. With Zobrist already proven as a super-utility man, he would serve as a great guy to have in your everyday lineup. This is how the situation could be (in a five-game span) for Zobrist; two games at second, two games at first, one game in right, thus allowing Jennings to start three games in right. The remaining game in right field would go to Joyce. Joyce would also see a lot of pinch-hit at-bats against righties in addition to spelling Manny Ramirez at the DH position, while Rodriguez would see additional time at shortstop. Like Rodriguez, incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac has never been an everyday player either.
With so many options on the right-side, infield and outfield, it’s almost impossible to predict what the April 1 lineup will actually look like. One thing is for sure: Joe Maddon loves to use different lineups everyday (129 different batting orders in 2010) so expect changes to be made often.
As far as Jennings goes, I believe he is worthy of a spot on the Rays roster, I don’t however have much faith in a concrete situation surfacing straight out of spring. Plus, teams never want to bring up a star prospect out of Spring Training just to have him sit-the-bench (not with all the money they can save by keeping them in the minors) It’s because of this business approach that I think he will start in Durham. I expect Jennings to lower his FB%, creating an increase in OBP (On Base Percentage), as well as a chance to showcase his speed on the base paths. He’s just too talented, I think the Rays need him to get as much time under the tutelage of Manny and Damon (before they’re gone). This is why Desmond Jennings should be on the Rays Opening Day roster. We’ll just have to wait and see if he actually is. He has my vote.