For a while, the Tampa Bay Rays thought that they would be able to avoid a DL stint for Desmond Jennings. His knee soreness would require several days off, but they thought that the injury was minor enough that they would get him back in a few days if they were willing to play with a short-handed bench. Instead, Jennings was placed on the DL on May 8th, eight days after his initial injury, and has made almost no progress towards a return. Now Jennings is going to see a knee specialist in California, and it is hard not to expect the worst.
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Desmond Jennings never reached his potential. He was supposed to be an electric basestealer who was also capable of hitting 25 home runs–instead, he has swiped more than 20 bases just once and has yet to hit 15 home runs in a season. That being said, Jennings has still been a valuable player for the Rays over the years. He averaged 3.1 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference and 3.2 pre Fangraphs from 2012 to 2014 thanks to great defense along with solid though not spectacular efforts in the batter’s box and in the field. He has consistently been considered an above-average starting outfielder in the major leagues.
However, now Jennings is out with a left knee injury, just like he was at the end of last season. The steadiness in his game was his biggest strength, but DL stints negate that. Even worse, a knee injury and a speed-oriented player is never a promising combination. Jennings could still come back and return to his previous form if his knee issue can finally be diagnosed. The Rays can continue holding out hope for a breakout. However, Jennings is making more money each year and his future is trending in the wrong direction.
.In addition to Jennings’ own issues, we can hardly say that he has been missed by the Rays. Steven Souza Jr.‘s promise is evident while David DeJesus has been the team’s best hitter against right-handed pitching. Brandon Guyer has only improved with more big league time while Kevin Kiermaier is hitting enough to make his defense shine. And that is before we even get to Joey Butler, the 29-year-old rookie who has surprised everyone.
On the whole, Rays outfielders have combined for a .780 OPS, sixth-best in all of baseball. Defensively, they have a 15.6 ultimate zone rating, which is second only to the Kansas City Royals. The second stat is misleading because Kiermaier has an 11.5 UZR by himself–Jennings could improve the defense in the corner outfield–but even so, is Jennings’ overall package of skills worth inserting into the lineup on any sort of regular basis?
If Jennings somehow returned before John Jaso and Butler regresses as expected, he would still have a starting role. Jennings would be a major improvement against left-handed pitching and because of Guyer’s durability concerns, he would likely start most games against righties as well. If Jaso is in the mix as well, however, would the Rays really start Jennings over DeJesus in left? Wouldn’t Jennings be reduced to an expensive platoon player?
Situations like this tend to work themselves out. Jennings may not come back this season, and we will have to see what happens with Jaso. Guyer and DeJesus have a history of injury issues and we still aren’t sure that Kiermaier will hit. The situation where the Rays have too many quality outfielders does not have a high probability of occurring. Then, after the season, the Rays can let Jaso leave as a free agent, move DeJesus back to DH (assuming they pick up his option), and put Jennings in left field if they like.
There is a crucial difference, though, between being able to accommodate a player and being excited about him. The excitement has seemingly disappeared for Jennings, and Tampa Bay Rays fans may never be exhilarated about him again. Jennings will almost surely play again for the Rays, but more to restore his trade value than to help their team win games. At the very least, the Rays won’t be rushing Jennings back from his knee injury to any extent at all.