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.