Desmond Jennings has always been an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle. He was seen as the successor to Melvin (B.J.) Upton in center field after Upton left for free agency in 2013. Jennings certainly had a lot of Upton’s skills showing outstanding speed, power and defense but he also had a lot of his weaknesses. Like Upton, Jennings could not decide whether he was a top of the order speedster or a middle of the order power hitter and as a result, did not stand out in either category. His career slash line is .249/.327/.398 and, in any full season, has never hit above .252, hit more than 14 home runs or driven in more than 54 runs. Hardly the kind of numbers that the offense impaired Rays need if they want to go to the post season.
The 2015 season did not do much to help Jennings’s cause. Early in the season he tore up his knee and was out until September and his return was brief as he went on the dl after, of all things, dental surgery. The result was a 28 game season with 97 at bats. His numbers were about on average but with so few at bats who can tell if he made progress. It didn’t help that on top of this, in his absence, Kevin Kiermaier emerged as a gold glove center fielder and a promising left handed hitter.
And if all this wasn’t enough to confuse things, two young outfielders, Brandon Guyer and Mikie Mahtook, played well last year and are fighting for more playing time in 2016. Guyer, finally healthy, got to the plate 332 times and posted a .265/.359/.413 slash line. Translate that to a full season and his numbers are vey similar to those of Jennings. Mahtook took advantage of limited at 105 at bats in his rookie year to post a .295/.351/.619 slash line with 9 home runs and 19 rbi’s. Granted it’s a limited sample but you have to like that kind of production.
Unfortunately, all three players hit from the right side of the plate. Jennings and Guyer have always posted better numbers against lefthanders and Mahtook,, given his small sample, posted good numbers against both right handers and left handers. No matter, the idea of a platoon situation doesn’t work. Add in the Rays recent signing of right handed slugger Steve Pearce who includes left field on his resume and you wonder how everybody will get enough at bats.
Spring training will do a lot to sort out the situation. If Jennings is healthy and his bat takes off, the decision will be easy. The Rays, who are paying Jennings over $3 million, would love nothing better than to plug him in as their leadoff hitter and everyday left fielder. Everyday left fielder is one thing and leadoff hitter is another. Jennings has never been your prototypical leadoff man. Consider that Dee Gordon, probably the best leadoff hitter in the business has 205 hits, 58 stolen bases and a .359obp and Jennings, in his best year, had 133 hits, 31 stolen bases and a .334 obp and you realize he has a ways to go to be the Rays’ table setter.
And, there is always the possibility of a trade. The signing of Pearce was a little strange, as you would think the Rays were looking for one more left handed power hitter but a trade could happen. The Rays probably wouldn’t trade Jennings but a deal with the Cubs built around Brandon Guyer for Chris Coghlan is a possibility. Such a trade would make sense for both teams as Coghlan would add left handed power for the Rays and the Cubs would add a valuable fourth outfielder. This would set up a Jennings/Coghlan platoon with Jennings available to give Kiermaier a breather.
The Rays go into spring training with a number questions to be answered but none is more important than solving the Desmond Jennings puzzle. Is he healthy? Can he finally end the Rays search for a leadoff hitter? Is he an everyday left fielder? The Rays can only hope that the answers are yes to all three.