By David Heck, Special to CBS Local Sports
CBS Local Sports will be profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team every day for the next 30 days as part of our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature.
Desmond Jennings, Outfielder, Tampa Bay Rays
2011 season: 63 G, 247 AB, .259 BA, 44 R, 10 HR, 25 RBI, 20 SB
The hype around Rays camp this spring will likely be about Matt Moore, but Jennings is as much of a part of the Rays’ future as the touted left-hander. Jennings is a name familiar to followers of the minor leagues, as he was one of the game’s best prospects for four years. He always displayed extraordinary speed on the basepaths and in the field, drawing comparisons to Carl Crawford, but the question was about how much power he could develop. Last year, he appeared to answer those questions.
Jennings enjoyed a career year in 2012, hitting a combined 22 homers between the Majors and minors to double his previous career high. More amazingly, Jennings’ season came after he had totaled just six home runs over the previous two years combined. The issue had been nagging shoulder injuries that had plagued Jennings since 2010 – finally healthy last year, he showed the kind of pop that he possesses. Those injuries might have helped Jennings develop a batting eye, however, as he posted a strong .382 on-base percentage during his minor league career.
Of course, the name of the game with Jennings has always been overall speed and athleticism, and he didn’t disappoint in that area last season. He racked up 37 steals across all levels, getting caught just seven times. Taking out an injury-ruined 2008 season in which he played in just 24 games, Jennings last stole fewer than 37 bags in his rookie 2006 season, when he managed 32 (in 56 games, no less). The only time the outfielder was caught more than seven times in his career was 2007, when he was gunned down on 15 occasions.
The Rays have had opportunity to promote Jennings over the years – and did in fact put him on the roster for the 2010 playoffs before sending him down to the minors to start 2011 – but they waited for him to prove that he was fully healthy before giving him a real chance. That approach paid off last season, when his second-half contributions helped catapult the team to the American League Wild Card. Now, the Rays will control Jennings until he is 30, practically ensuring that they will get his prime years for a manageable cost. Many will continue to pit him against Crawford, the man he is essentially replacing, but a better comparison might be the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen. Jennings probably won’t quite put up the stolen base numbers of his predecessor, but he’ll have more power and better plate discipline. That means he could be an All-Star player as soon as this season.
Next up on March 8: Chicago White Sox