By: Jack Boulia
In 2009, Desmond Jennings was the sixth-best prospect in all of baseball and was the Tampa Bay Rays’ number one prospect (per Baseball America). In 2011, Jennings racked up 2.4 fWAR in 287 plate appearances, and if you extend that ratio to six hundred plate appearances, Jennings was on pace for a five-win season. Jennings was fairly exciting in 2011, slashing .259/.356/.449 to go along with ten homers and twenty steals which, if you extend it to six hundred plate appearances again, gives you twenty-one homers and forty-two steals. All of this was supported by a .303 BABIP which is right in line with the league-average. He had a wRC+ of 128, which doesn’t exactly grow on trees. Combine this with scouting reports of above-average to stellar defensive marks in center field, and the Rays had a budding star on their hands.
Then, from 2012-2014, Jennings slashed .247/.322/.393 with a .296 BABIP, so he earned that slash line. He had a 105 wRC+, so he was a pretty much average offensive contributor. Soon after, Jennings lost the shine of his prospect status after not being able to replicate his fantastic rookie season, and was essentially forgotten, even being labeled a bust by many. Yet, from 2012-2014, he quietly put up three straight three-win seasons, good for 9.7 fWAR. Defensive metrics generally agreed with the scouting reports as Jennings was definitely an above-average centerfielder. He was quietly becoming one of the more valuable players in the major leagues for a financially-challenged Rays team.
At twenty-eight years old, Jennings is still in his prime, yet speed peaks very early and defense tends to erode quickly, so I had tempered expectations coming into this season. ZiPS did too, projecting Jennings for twenty stolen bases (nothing to scoff at), but also 2.5 wins due to average projected defensive marks in center field. Jennings was a 60 FV player that turned into a 55 FV one; a drop off, but not a significant one, and still a very valuable one. Jennings also hasn’t exactly been an ideal model of health during his career, so his projection is hurt there as well, however, his move to the corner outfield should help save his legs in the long-run. The incredible Kevin Kiermaier has most likely displaced Jennings in center field (and will also be written about shortly), so the Rays share my concerns, and ZiPS’ concerns, as well.
Everyone knew about Jennings’ ailing knee last year, however it really hasn’t gone away and unfortunately he has only been limited to seventy-two very poor, very injured plate appearances this year. This may end up being a lost year for Jennings who is only projected for about two-hundred plate appearances the rest of the year, equating to somewhere between 0.6-0.9 fWAR. I had the idea for this article last year, so this paragraph seems somewhat out of place in an article that praises Desmond Jennings. However, the fWAR projection for a healthy Desmond Jennings still have him on pace to be an average to above-average player when he comes back.
Jennings will never reach the lofty, superstar status everyone had equated him with for years, however he’s still had quite the career so far, despite going almost universally unrecognized. Though he’s injured, his speed has peaked, and his defense is beginning to drop off, I still see Jennings being an average to above-average baseball player moving forward. Most people hear average and think “eh”, but he’s an average baseball player relative to the best seven-hundred and fifty baseball players in the world. Though this year is probably lost for Jennings, I wrote this more to say “hey, look at what he’s done over his career” just to draw attention to it, because it deserves to have attention drawn to it. Jennings is not going to be a productive fantasy player going forward. He’s barely going to contribute on the field this year. But as a baseball fan, sometimes you have to sit back and admire the under-appreciated player, because they’re often the most valuable.