Oct 7, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings (8) bunts during the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox in game three of the American League divisional series at Tropicana Field. The Rays won 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Back when Desmond Jennings was first coming up through the Rays system, the hope was that he would turn out to be another player in the mold of Carl Crawford. It was felt that Jennings could get on base, hit approximately twenty home runs and steal fifty bases, all while playing Gold Glove caliber defense and being a sparkplug atop the Rays lineup. At the time that Crawford would inevitably price himself out of the Rays budget, it was thought that Tampa Bay would have Carl Crawford 2.0 waiting in the wings.
Thus far in his career, Jennings has looked similar to Crawford. However, much to the Rays dismay, he has more closely resembled the post Tampa Bay Crawford than the four time All-Star that patrolled left and center for almost a decade. At this point, it may be fair to refer to Jennings as a disappointment thus far in his career.
Yet, there are signs that Jennings may be getting closer to tapping into the potential that made him a top prospect not that long ago. Jennings improved his patience at the plate, walking a career high 64 times last season, while lowering his strikeout to a career best 19.1%. He also hit fourteen home runs and more than doubled his career total in doubles last season, showing that his potential for power may be on the verge of breaking through.
For every positive that Jennings had last season, there were also negatives. A year after going 31 for 33 in stolen base attempts, Jennings was only successful on 20 of 28 tries, and was picked off seven times. His typically flawless defense failed him towards the latter part of the season, as Jennings made two errors during the month of September, and three overall, after not making an error since his first game in 2011. He also misplayed several other balls in the outfield, leading to extra bases although they were not ruled errors. At times, it appeared as though his mind was elsewhere.
Jennings is another player on the Rays who may be finding his career at a crossroads heading into next season. Although Jennings has the skillset to seemingly evolve into a solid leadoff hitter, he actually performed at his best when dropped down to the seventh spot in the batting order, hitting .289/.353/.378 in his 45 at bats in that spot in the lineup. While it is a small sample size, could it be that Jennings is more comfortable hitting lower in the lineup? His career numbers in that spot would appear to bear that out, as Jennings is a career .307/.367/.420 hitter out of the seventh spot.
What is Desmond Jennings? Is he the heir to Carl Crawford – that dynamic leadoff hitter who can affect a game in virtually every facet, as he has shown flashes of? Or is he a solid bat in the lower third of the order, helping to provide depth in the lineup? Is he a Gold Glove caliber center fielder, or is he the player that at times appeared distracted, making numerous mental errors in the field down the stretch for the Rays? At this point, even Jennings may not know the answer.
The keys for Jennings are likely to be his continued development and improved consistency. If he can continue to improve his plate discipline and work counts, that could, in turn, give him better offerings to hit. By putting himself in better positions to produce, that could lead to the consistency that has been lacking in his game.
Desmond Jennings may be on the verge of becoming the player that the Rays hoped he would be as he came up through their system. 2014 may go a long way to determining if he will finally reach that potential.