Desmond Jennings has finally been recalled by the Rays, and supposedly he is here to stay. Rated as high as sixth in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list in 2010, Jennings was performing exceptionally well in his second season at Triple-A and earned himself a shot at a full-time role with Tampa Bay.
The Rays still have a crowded outfield, with B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld being the incumbents, but with Fuld’s lack of production over the past few months and Joyce’s struggles against left-handed pitchers, Jennings will play close to every day in a corner spot -- at least unless/until Upton is traded.
Upton is expected to be moved at the deadline, and Jennings is one of the main reasons why. While the Rays are falling further and further behind in the AL East and AL wild-card races, they are not completely dead yet. They are just six games behind the Yankees in the wild-card race, which is not insurmountable but is certainly a difficult task. In trading Upton, the Rays would have a rare opportunity to improve both their farm system and their major league team simultaneously.
Upton has an incredible amount of talent, but it is possible that Jennings is already the better hitter and the better baserunner. In Triple-A, Jennings hit .275/.375/.456 with 12 home runs and 17 steals in 18 chances. Upton has struggled this season, netting just a .312 OBP and 23 steals, and has been caught stealing seven times. Even so, Upton still has a lot of value to a team that is in need of a center fielder, or to a team that misses out on the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes.
Netting a decent return for Upton can possibly push the Rays’ farm system to the top once again, and replacing Upton with Jennings is potentially an upgrade for the big league club right now. Coincidentally, on Saturday the Rays played the Royals, who were the holders of the “best farm” title until the graduation of prospects such as Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer likely took them down a peg or two. Hosmer stole the show in Saturday’s game, ending the action in the 10th inning with an RBI double to score Mike Aviles.
Whatever the outcome, Jennings’ performance would not be overshadowed. He showed what he could tonight, going 2-for-3 with a triple, double, two walks and a steal. While Jennings does not possess game-breaking power, he does have plus speed and very good plate discipline. Prior to his call-up, Jennings had walked in 11.3 percent of his plate appearance at Triple-A, which is certainly above average. His defense is also well above par, as Baseball America rated him the top defensive outfielder among the Rays' prospects in each of the past two seasons.
Speed and patience were the tools on display for Jennings tonight, with the speed being the most evident on his triple and when he scored from first on a double. Speed is an area where the Rays have actually been lackluster this year in comparison to years past, with much of that due to Carl Crawford’s departure to Boston. The Rays currently rank sixth in the AL in steals with 82, which is obviously not bad, but far off the first-place rank they have held every year since 2008. If Upton is traded, the amount of stolen bases will likely not increase, but if he stays, the team gains another legitimate stolen-base threat who hardly ever gets caught.
With all the tools Jennings has and how well he has performed at Triple-A, the mistake the Rays may have made in this process was keeping Jennings down for so long, just to give plate appearances to Fuld. Fuld was a great story in the early part of the year, but he has posted a .269 OBP and is only 7-for-12 in stolen base attempts since the start of May. Fuld is better off as a fourth outfielder and pinch-runner, but he has started 43 games over that span while a better talent remained on the farm.
The Rays may wind up regretting giving those plate appearances to Fuld, but nobody can change the past. Giving Jennings an everyday shot is absolutely the right decision to make at this time. While no trade occurred last night when Upton was removed from the game while Jennings was pulled from his game with the Durham Bulls, expect a deal to happen soon. The Desmond Jennings era in the Rays' outfield started off with a blast tonight, and his tenure as the Rays’ starting center fielder is likely soon to begin as well.
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