The typical pattern in baseball is that the veterans stays where he is while the promising young player moves to another position. That’s why Brett Gardner played left field alongside Curtis Granderson for two years and why Desmond Jennings let B.J. Upton play centerfield at the end of 2011 and in 2012. With that in mind, despite Kevin Kiermaier‘s incredible defensive reputation, we had to expect that he would play right field while Jennings remained in center.
Yet he isn’t, and it is not a point of contention. This isn’t something that was going to be determined in spring training or a topic that Desmond Jennings was going to complain about. Kevin Cash has already made clear that Jennings will be playing primarily left field for the Rays this season. The team may be going against convention, but they thought it was an obvious move, and they are right.
It should be common sense that your best defensive outfielder plays centerfield. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Kevin Kiermaier is that guy. He isn’t perfect, with his overaggressiveness leading to the occasional misplay or overthrow, but he covers more ground than Jennings and might have the best outfield arm in baseball.
An irony is that by doing this switch, the Rays may be costing Kiermaier a Gold Glove. If started in right field for most of their games, he was going to be the heavy favorite for the Gold Glove award in right field. In center, he will have more competition. However, it would mean a lot more of Kiermaier won the award in centerfield, and Desmond Jennings may now have a chance for the award in left field.
Everything we are saying about Kiermaier is no affront to Jennings’ defense in center. After some bizarre misplays ruined his 2013 defensively, 2014 saw him be a well above-average defender according to both UZR (4.9 runs above average) and DRS (+4) in 2014. However, in left field he was spectacular, managing a 10.2 UZR and a 9.0 DRS in 2012. There is every reason to think that he can return to that.
The hope for the Rays is that moving to left field can help more than Jennings’ defensive performance. When he last played the position, he stole 31 bases in 33 tries. He has stolen just 35 bases while being caught 14 times in the two seasons since. While we know that Jennings will need some time to adjust back to left field in spring, he will need to work less on it during the season and can focus more on his baserunning.
We don’t have as tidy of a statistic to quote, but the Rays can also hope that Jennings finally meets expectations at the plate. Since his excellent rookie season in 2011, Jennings has been fine at the plate, but the Rays keep waiting for more. Not only did they envision a 40-steal player, but also one who could hit 20 homers and get on base at a .370 clip.
Jennings is 28 now and entering his prime. The Rays can’t be too confident that he still has another gear in his game, but if he is ever going to unveil it, now is the time. Given the presence of Kiermaier, it worked out for Jennings to play left field, and if manning that position can help his probability of breaking out, then even better.
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One last point does not relate to Jennings, but Steven Souza. When we talked about the Rays’ defensive alignments for this season, one thing that stood out was that Souza was going to play left field versus right-handed pitching but right field versus lefties. The Rays will still have players moving around–for instance, Jennings will slide back to center when Kiermaier sits against a tough left-hander–but as Souza prepares for his first full big league season, it will be nice to give him some stability.
The Rays are set for an outfield of Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza from left to right on most nights, and it could be a very good one defensively. Jennings and Kiermaier will impress on a nightly basis, and while Souza is a step down from them, he also presents a marked improvement over Wil Myers in the field. The Rays are leaving no stone unturned as they try to maximize their team’s performance, and shifting Jennings to left is a nice example of that.