2015 has been a nightmare of a season for Desmond Jennings with the Tampa Bay Rays, and now it is officially over. He dealt with a multitude of knee issues, but it wound up being a tooth problem of all things that prevented him from returning and getting a chance to end the year on at least a small positive note. Now Jennings will enter 2016 as a 29-year-old outfielder with balky knees who is set to make a couple hundred thousand dollars more than the $3.1 million he received this year. Is it even worthwhile for the Rays to keep him around?
Before you even ask, the answer to that question is “clearly yes.” If the Rays do get rid of Jennings, it would mean one of two things: 1) they received a legitimate trade offer bringing back a pair of high-upside prospects in the low minors, or 2) his knee injury is a serious, long-term condition. In regards to 2), we have received no indication at all that Jennings’ situation is at all similar to that of current Ray Grady Sizemore, whose knee problems that required microfracture surgery caused him to go from being one of the best players in baseball to appearing in just 104 games combined between 2010 and 2013.
That isn’t to say that Jennings will necessarily come back to 100% of the player he was. It is always concerning when a speed-oriented player deals with leg injuries, and we have to wonder whether he will ever be as fast. That could affect him on the basepaths in addition to the outfield. The good news from the Rays’ standpoint, though, is that Kevin Kiermaier is entrenched in centerfield, leaving Jennings to play the easier position of left, and Jennings has never been a speed-only player like a Michael Bourn type. He has good plate discipline and solid power, giving him the ability to be a useful player even as he ages.
Desmond Jennings was excellent in his first extended big league time in 2011 before being an above-average starting outfielder each year from 2012 to 2014. There is some question about what he can give the Rays next season, but does the team have anyone else with the ability to be an above-average starting left fielder alongside Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. in 2016? It is hard to say that the answer to that question is yes.
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Joey Butler, Sizemore, and Daniel Nava delivered some moments for the Rays this year, but none of them can be counted on to be a solid starting outfielder. Brandon Guyer is a little bit more interesting, but his durability issues limit the number of games he can play even in a season like this year, when he never went on the disabled list. Richie Shaffer and Mikie Mahtook are the most captivating of all–and Mahtook deserves his own piece on this site in the near future–but Shaffer likely needs more Triple-A time while Mahtook’s strong small sample size in the majors can’t outweigh his .670 OPS with nearly five times as many strikeouts as walks at Triple-A. He is looking like a useful big league player, but asking him to be the starting left fielder to start next season is too much.
Bringing back Jennings would come with a degree of risk, and that is why the Rays will have depth. Maybe Jennings will get injured again, opening up an opportunity for Mahtook or Shaffer, or maybe he will play poorly enough that one of the rookies will move him to the bench. On other hand, a little over $3 million is a number that is reasonable even for the Rays, especially when we are dealing with a player of Jennings’ caliber, and it is unlikely that the Rays would receive a good enough trade offer to forego giving him another chance.
Desmond Jennings’ 2015 season has concluded, but in all probability, his tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays has not. There is plenty of reason for concern after how much time he missed this year, but not enough to give up on him given that provides the Rays with their best chance at an above-average left fielder for next season. Injuries could certainly derail Jennings’ career, but the price tag is low enough that the Rays will look to find out whether a few more years of health are in the horizon before that comes to fruition.