Jennings fills void left by Crawford
Rookie left fielder got called up to Majors on July 23
When Carl Crawford left Tampa Bay for Boston's seven-year, $142 million contract, Rays fans wondered if anyone could replace their left field fixture for the past nine years.
He could field and throw with the best Major League players, run faster than almost any one of them, hit for average and occasionally hit for power.
Exit Carl Crawford. Enter Desmond Jennings.
Since his July 23 arrival, the Rays' new left fielder has done just about everything Crawford did, including showing some unexpected power at the plate.
So, Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked even before the season began, will he be the next Carl Crawford? Maddon didn't take the bait.
"No," he replied, "he'll be the first Desmond Jennings."
The Birmingham, Ala., native was drafted out of Pinson Valley High School in the 18th round of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Indians. Jennings didn't sign; he dreamed of playing wide receiver at the University of Alabama. But he failed to qualify, so he enrolled at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi, planning to re-enroll at Alabama and play football in the spring. Baseball was not on his radar then.
Jennings led the nation in receiving and was a Junior College All-American, but was persuaded to try out for baseball, too, and in 2006 was drafted in the 10th round by the Rays. From then on, football was out of the picture.
From 2006-09, he rose rapidly through the Minor Leagues, batting a combined .305 and stealing 134 bases while getting caught just 29 times. But last September, in his first stint in the Majors, he batted just .190 in 17 games (24 plate appearances) and was thrown out in two of his four steal attempts.
"When I came up last year, I was physically ready to be here, but my confidence wasn't there," Jennings said. "I didn't hit too good. I'd come in, pinch-run, stuff like that. I didn't play good at all, but I got the experience."
After 15 Spring Training games this year, Jennings was batting an anemic .154. It wasn't surprising that he started the season at Triple-A Durham.
"Obviously, I wanted to be on the team [on Opening Day], but that wasn't the case," he said. "I wasn't disappointed. I figured I could work hard enough to get back here. I figured I'd get [called up] when they thought it was time for me to get here. It didn't take long."
After 89 games with the Bulls this season, Jennings was batting .275 with 19 doubles, 12 home runs, 39 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 18 attempts. He got the call July 22 with the Rays having lost seven of their previous 10 games against the Yankees and Red Sox, the teams Tampa Bay is chasing in the AL East.
On July 23, following a few hours' sleep and a flight from Durham to join the Rays in Kansas City, Jennings started out with a bang. Leading off, he tripled to start the game, had an RBI double in his second at-bat, then drew walks his next two times up, stole a base and scored once. Finally, he took a third strike in the ninth inning.
After six games Jennings was batting .500 (11-for-22) with three doubles, the triple, four stolen bases and his first Major League home run. He has since cooled off, of course, but his average has yet to drop below .300.
Rays batting coach Derek Shelton calls Jennings a "game-changer" who can have that kind of impact at bat, on the base paths and in the field. Find a player like that, Shelton said, and "you've got someone special."
Not unlike Crawford. The comparisons are inevitable.
"I guess we've got a few similarities," Jennings said. "I've been trying to get away from the comparisons, but you can't run from them. The athleticism is pretty much the same.
"I hope I can do the things [Crawford] did at the plate and in left field. He was the guy here for as long as he was here. You can't replace him."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.