Monday, July 25, 2011

Desmond Jennings Likely in the Majors to Stay

While I was away this weekend, the Rays recalled outfielder Desmond Jennings from Durham. It only seems like Jennings has been on prospect lists for a century - this was actually only his fourth year on Baseball America's preseason Top 100, ranking #22 this season.

Jennings was having a very nice season at Durham, batting .275/.374/.456, with good CF defense and 17 steals in 18 tries. This is about in line with his .283/.375/.431 numbers since he was promoted to AAA in mid-2009, since when he has accumulated nearly 1000 plate appearances - a massive number for someone so highly regarded. His improved all-around game this year, showing more power and defensive skill, was making it difficult for the Rays to keep him in the minors. Indeed, if it hadn't been for a fractured finger sustained earlier in the month, it is likely that Jennings would have been recalled around the All-Star Break.

After getting the call on Saturday morning, Jennings started both weekend games for the Rays in Kansas City, in left field on Saturday and center on Sunday. Through the two games, he is 4 for 6 with 2 runs, 2 doubles, a triple, an RBI, 2 steals, 2 walks (one intentionally) and 2 HBP. According to Baseball-Reference, that gives him .4 WAR, only .1 behind the season total of regular LF Sam Fuld.

While Jennings would be a clear improvement over Fuld, it's not clear that's who he'll be replacing. The BJ Upton trade rumors have been running rampant over the past week, and I would be surprised if he is still a Ray by the end of the trade deadline this coming Sunday. Don't be surprised if Jennings immediately outplays Upton. As I posted here, Upton has value as an excellent baserunner and a very good center fielder, he simply isn't much of a hitter. For a third straight season, he has a sub-.750 OPS. Among 78 AL qualifiers, he is 64th in OBP and 47th in SLG.

As with any prospect, we can't guarantee what kind of player Jennings will be. However, his combination of speed, defense and patience is a great set of tools to build on. This season, Jennings has been more effective not only waiting for a good pitch, but driving that pitch with authority. More importantly, has been Jennings attitude during his prolonged stay at AAA. It could be very well argued that Jennings has been ready for the bigs since early last season, at least. Often, when a highly touted prospect is stuck in AAA for longer than he should be, he'll begin to sulk, and his numbers will suffer. Not so with Jennings, who has improved in nearly every facet of his game this year. If there's one point of caution, it's that his strikeout rate is a tick higher this year. That would be a concern if he were making more outs overall, but he isn't - the increased strikeouts appear to be an offshoot of his increased commitment to drive the ball, certainly a tradeoff the Rays will take. While the Rays are likely too far out of contention in 2011 (Baseball Prospectus has their odds at 3.2%), it is easy to imagine that Jennings will be a key contributor to competitive Rays teams in the coming years.

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